When Border Grill opened, first on Melrose Avenue and then at its current location on 4th Street in Santa Monica, there were no upscale Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles. It was the late 80’s/early ’90’s, plenty of Mexican food to be found but mainly in your run of the mill cantinas. Then along came Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken who, after touring Mexico extensively, brought back flavors and ingredient combinations and opened their fun version of an authentic Mexican restaurant.
The “Two Hot Tamales” have, in the last two decades, created a mini empire – Vegas location of Border Grill, Ciudad in downtown LA, Street (run by Ms Feniger only) and a bunch of food trucks. And a respectable run on Top Chef Masters.
Border Grill in Santa Monica has become a staple, one I have visited often over the years, especially when in need of good margaritas and some snacks. The long bar has a popular happy hour with a small menu – the drinks are reasonably priced and very good – the bartenders are always full of interesting suggestions and run the show very smoothly.
The large room has aged well with its strong colors and bold graffiti – the noise level, though, can become unbearable. I was recently at Border Grill for a party and, if the mojito was good, the food was just ok. I liked the three salsas that come with the chips and the guacamole is always fresh but the Plantain Empanadas lacked flavor. The Green Corn Tamales are reliable, creamy and sweet, maybe a tad too sweet.
The Pollo Ciudad, marinated chicken in a cilantro sauce with pickled tomatoes, grilled scallions and red rice, was barely passable. The rice was dry and the chicken tasteless. The Yucatan Pork fared better – roasted in achiote inside banana leaves, it was tender and tasty once wrapped in a tortilla with guacamole, plantains and caramelized onions. Nothing was terribly bad but nothing was exciting either – it feels like the menu hasn’t changed in a long time and it’s a bit like going to an Italian restaurant that still serves the same seafood linguine, only they are not that outstanding anymore.
Restaurants that stay in business for over 20 years must clearly have something going for themselves and this one has a killer location, a long-standing reputation and great drinks. But the food is becoming less and less interesting – there are many other takes on Mexican restaurants I would rather visit. Or am I just becoming too jaded?
1445 4th Street
Santa Monica, 90401 – Tel 310 451 1655