Sunday, May 29, 2005

Girls Just Wanna have Fun: Border Grill Santa Monica

I am grateful to my college years at UCLA for exposing me to many things. I was exposed to the agony of pulling all-nighters before finals. I was exposed to beer kegs and Goldschlager shots and the harsh discovery that the two don't mix well. I was exposed to many different cultures (and foods!) through the friends I made. And finally, I was exposed to many different ideals and the people that believed strongly in them. It was the first time I realized people got mad at others for simply being content with the way life is. It was the first time I had really been introduced to the concept of political correctness and why it was important to be sensitive to others that are different than me. And it was the first time I had ever been exposed to staunch-feminism.

I recall a day when I was studying with my then-boyfriend and a group of our dorm-mates at Kerkhoff Hall. I got up to buy a cup of coffee for myself, so instinctively I asked my then-boyfriend what he wanted. Before he could answer, one of our dorm-mates, a self-proclaimed feminist, rudely interrupted, "How can you let yourself serve him like that? No woman should serve a man! Don't you have any self-respect?" For some reason, we just got up and left. Today, I would have kicked her ass.

I'd also heard stories from my male friends that some women had actually gotten mad when they'd hold the door open for them. My college girlfriends and I once invited a bunch of people over for a potluck dinner party. When we asked this one girl if she'd like to cook something for the party, she told us that she doesn't cook because the kitchen is no place for a woman anymore.

The kitchen is no place for a woman anymore??? Come on! Yeah, we're not in 1950's America anymore where a woman is expected to stay home all day and have dinner on the table by the time her husband comes home, but what's wrong with a woman who actually chooses to cook or take care of a home? Maybe I've got some traditional sentiments, perhaps it was the way I was raised, but to me, a powerful woman isn't necesarily just an independent, successful woman. A powerful woman is, rather, a woman who can hold her own, be successful at whatever career or passions she pursues AND who can also run a kitchen and a home like no one else can. That, my friends, is the power of a woman--have a woman go up against a man in that category and she'll mostlikely kick his ass by a longshot.

Saturday night, I had an opportunity to check out just how awesome women in the kitchen can be, thanks to
Sarah from The Delicious Life's monthly flogger event, Dine and Dish: Queen of Cuisine. I had thought of going to one of Suzanne Goin's creations, but I had already been to A.O.C. last month and I thought I'd diversify. I thumbed through my Zagat to search for restaurants manned by, owned by, or created by a woman. But then it came to me. Flashbacks of old-school Food Network days when I'd sit and watch as two quirky women--one brunette who's shorter and spunkier, and the other, the blonde, who's taller and a little more mellow-- prepare their twists on Latin cuisine. You know who I'm talking about yet?

Susan Fenniger and Mary Sue Miliken, or the "Too Hot Tamales," as they're better known, are classically-trained chefs, TV and radio personalities, and the owner-operators of popular Nuevo Latino restaurants, Border Grill in Santa Monica and Las Vegas and Ciudad in Downtown L.A. I sure as hell couldn't make it to Vegas and I wanted to get out of downtown (plus I've been to Ciudad before and wanted to try something new), so I opted for Border Grill in Santa Monica.

Woo-hoo, par-tay! we thought, as we entered the festive dining space, buzzing with conversation, laughter, and hip Latin beats. Brightly painted murals, reminiscent of
Joan Miro, Picasso, and Keith Haring surrounded us. We walked past a giant square table in the bar area that seated a group of about 20 people, all with margaritas or mojitos in hand, celebrating something, maybe even nothing, but just celebrating.

It's like a fiesta in here!

Once seated, our server, looking a little like
Gunther from Friends, explained the day's specials and a few of the more popular regular menu items with more gusto than I'd ever seen a server do in my life. He stooped down to do his little spiel, (a server's trick, I've heard, to bring themselves to the customer's level instead of looking down on them) which was a little too close for comfort, in my opinion, as he was a bit of a "close-talker." But at least he was trying to make us feel at home. After he took our order (and after we took a deep breath after wondering if he was going to start making out with us), tortilla chips and three different salsas were brought to our table for us to graze on as we waited for our food. The chips were a wee bit stale, but they didn't stop us from continuously dipping into the little pools of green, orange and red. The tomatillo salsa was sharp and zesty, with a subtle cilantro flavor. I skipped over that one as soon as I tasted the cilantro (don't forget, the shit makes me gag), but Isaac thought it was decent. I enjoyed the other two choices more, a chipotle salsa, mild and smoky, and a roasted tomato salsa, sweet and spicy.

Chips And Three Salsas

Our appetizer, the Border Classics, a selection of their three most popular starters, arrived shortly. I started out with a green corn tamale, an adorable little corn-husked wrapped bundle filled with sweet corn and masa. Although it tasted a little unlike most tamales I've eaten, the filling was good. The extremely moist masa was a little less salty than I'm used to but the corn kernels made up for that with their sweetness. I moved on to the purple dumplings on the plate next, the plantain empanadas. Here, roasted plantains were stuffed with black beans, poblano chiles and a bit of salty cotija cheese, a combination that couldn't have worked better as with each little bite, I could taste each ingredient working both indpendently and in unison. I'm still a little confused as to why they were purple, though. Last up on our appetizer sampler plate were a couple of chicken panuchos, which were basically chicken tostadas with black beans, guacamole, and pickled onions. These were good but I thought they were nothing special, that is, until I had a bite of its pickled red onion garnish. They were cool, crisp, and both sweet and tart-- a little reminiscent of some of the pickled vegetables that I'm more used to in Chinese dishes. But I'd never had pickled vegetables on a tostada before, so I gobbled the whole thing up!

Border Classics appetizer plate

As suggested by our "close-talker" waiter, we ordered the cochinita pibil and the gaucho steak as our entrees. Now, I've never had cochinita pibil before, so I don't really have anything to compare it to. As Border Grill specializes in upscale, modern Latin dining, I doubt that what I had could be called authentic Yucatan, but it was, nevertheless, pretty tasty. The slow roasted tender pork pulled apart easily and sat in a complex achiote-based sauce that had hints of citrus peel and cinnamon. As extras, black beans with a few specks of cotija cheese for saltiness, roasted plantains, guacamole, white rice (which was my least favorite thing on the plate as it was a little Minute Rice-ish), and yay--more pickled red onions!

Cochinita Pibil

The gaucho steak is Border Grill's obligatory steak-on-the-menu...every "modern ethnic" food establishment has one. As long as its good quality beef and cooked right, a steak is a steak is a steak, but at places like these, it's interesting to see what twists they put on the hunk o' red meat to make it their own. Border Grill adds some pretty tasty but more on the mushy side red chilaquiles (shredded tortillas fried in enchilada sauce), watercress salad, and marinated roasted garlic and serrano chiles to theirs. The watercress salad seemed a little out of place--perhaps it was there to lend some coolness to an otherwise dish full of heat? Another vegetable might have worked better. We cut up the marinated roasted garlic and serranos up into smaller pieces and had each tender bite of our medium rare steak with these spicy condiments. Now that combination worked extremely well. Allright, I guess Border Grill gets an A- for twist on obligatory steak dish.

Gaucho steak

OK, so overall I liked, not loved the food at Border Grill. I'm not usually a fan of fancy, pricey Latin American foods, because frankly, I'd rather go to a taco stand or something of that nature. Way more authentic, tastier food, and tons (and I mean TONS) cheaper. But regardless, I had a great time at Border Grill Saturday night! It was like attending a fiesta-themed dinner party thrown by two of your best girlfriends. (A party also attended by
Helen Hunt and baby-daddy producer Matt Carnahan, by the way...they were dining at an adjacent table) It's just a mere hypothesis on my part, but I truly believe that because women have a natural maternal and homing instinct, women restauranteurs will go out of their way to create a warm and pleasant atmosphere for their diners, as did Mary Sue and Susan. Leave it to a woman to make you feel right at home.

And speaking of powerful women, Mary Sue and Susan are prime examples. These two can cook AND run their own cooking TV and radio programs, have their own line of prepared foods at Whole Foods Market, author
five cookbooks, be actively involved with several charities involved in fighting hunger, poverty, and disease, and be the founding members of Women Chefs and Restauranteurs (WCR), a group dedicated to promoting women's rights and advancement within the food service industry. Don't believe me? Check out their website,

So see? Sometimes a woman's place is in the kitchen. And she'll outcook you and outsmart you at everything else, too.

Border Grill
1445 4th St.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 451-1655


elmomonster said...

Isn't it weird that both Mexican and Vietnamese food tastes better at a lower price point.

sarah said...

PAM! i almost went to border grill, too! LOL! i agree, the food is alright, but i love how FUN it is, um, especially at happy hour ;)

elmomonster: LOL! the same goes for korean food. the WORST korean food i've ever tasted was at the very expensive woo lae oak. how horrible is that?

BBQ Junkie said...

it actually has a nice happy hour, or at least it used to. i haven't been there in over a year. the margaritas are pretty good with a nice selection of mexican bar food.

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