At the French restaurant where they both got their start, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger discovered decidedly un-French cuisine in the privacy of the kitchen: homespun Oaxacan and Yucatan recipes prepared by their fellow chefs. The duo promptly untied their aprons, loaded them into a VW Beetle, and took off for a road trip to Mexico in 1985, where they sampled and studied delicacies prepared at beachside taco stands and family barbecues. Three restaurants, two gourmet food trucks, five cookbooks, hundreds of episodes of Food Network's Too Hot Tamales, and sizzling appearances on Top Chef Masters later, their Border Grill eateries add contemporary twists to authentic Mexican cuisine. Guests are greeted by dining rooms originally designed by the architect Josh Schweitzer, who is Mary Sue's husband and Susan's childhood friend. Within their walls, healthful plates enhanced by seasonal fruits and vegetables and fresh salsas roll into handmade tortillas or revel beneath cotija cheese. Devoted to sustainable eating, Border Grill infuses its dishes with sustainable seafood, organic rice and beans, and hormone-free meats, as well as Good for the Planet, Good for You meals made from at least 80% plant-based ingredients, just like Captain Planet's faux-leather jacket.
Before you die, you must eat one of Chichen Itza Restaurant’s panuchos. At least that’s the opinion of LA Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold, who included the appetizer on his list of 99 essential L.A. eats. The turkey-stuffed corn tortillas kick off chef Gilberto Cetina's menu, which contains original recipes as well as Mayan, Spanish, and Lebanese dishes traditionally found in Cetina's native Yucatan. Among the selection of mesquite-grilled entrees is the cochinita pibil, a pork dish that Gilberto marinates with sour orange juice and spices before cooking it in banana leaves. The dish's “succulent, aromatic, tender, irresistible pork” is so sought after that Gilberto makes up to 60 pounds a day, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Chichen Itza is located inside Mercado La Paloma, an upscale food court whose restaurants, bakery, and juice bar have attracted attention from local press. Patrons approach the restaurant’s counter to order their meal and then wait at linen-dressed tables for servers to present their selected dishes.
Normally a dining room is nothing more than a dining room, but the cheerful space at Mama's International Tamales, with its brightly colored furniture and Latino artwork adorning the wall, is simultaneously a dining room and a classroom. The entire team under manager Sandi "Mama" Romero consists of low- and moderate-income culinary apprentices from Los Angeles's central region. Each day, the group puts her instructions into practice as they create authentically presented food from the Americas for their customers, while enriching their kitchen education.
The restaurant's namesake tamales are made from scratch and infused with flavors from a variety of Latin American countries. Other specialties include quesadillas with ingredients such as asada or spinach and mushrooms, as well as tostadas made with homemade tortillas and fillings such as chicken, tofu, and ceviche. Vegan cheese is also available to replace dairy cheese in any of the restaurant’s dishes or on days when dairy cheese refuses to come out of its dressing room.
Prepared from scratch using authentic recipes passed down for generations throughout the many regions of Oaxaca, Monte Alban Restaurant's cuisine earned the eatery a spot on Los Angeles magazine's Best of LA list. The honor is a testament to the restaurant’s culinary team, which crafts fire-roasted salsas, blackening seasonings, and handmade tortillas from scratch using ingredients from local sustainable producers. Dishes include tortillas filled with cheese doused in guacamole red salsa, a vegetarian turnover with squash blossoms and mushrooms, and five moles that include a yellow mole flavored with dry chiles, pepper, and cumin.
To wash down spicy bites, barkeeps whip up specialty cocktails and glasses of wine, beer, and Atole Blanco ó Champurrado—a hot drink made from corn dough. Feasts unfold in Monte Alban's cozy dining room, which surround guests with paintings of Oaxaca's mountainous boroughs.
At Tarascos, owner Antonio Garcia and his chefs blend the comfortable and familiar with the slightly out of the ordinary. A chalkboard-scrawled menu lists Mexican classics such as enchiladas alongside lesser-known dishes such as huaraches, large, oblong tortillas stacked with charbroiled meats. Plates of barbacoa feature the seasoned beef wrapped in maguey leaves and slow-steamed until tender. Likewise, the tap menu mixes Mexican imports such as Pacifico and Modelo Especial with Tarascos's own home-brewed organic beers.
Patrons can dine inside or outdoors on a beer garden–style patio shaded from weather and warmed with gas heaters. On the patio, Tarascos also regularly holds cooking classes, such as a tamale class that was featured on ABC 7.