Sparkly whites and a new restaurant: Border Grill chilaquiles

In March 1985, during my shift at Stratton’s Grill, Dennis yelled, “Marla, phone’s for you.” No one had ever called me at work before, so it was with some trepidation that I went into the office. 

“This is Susan Feniger. How would you like to work with Mary Sue and I at our new Mexican restaurant?”

After setting up a time to meet, I hung up, did a discrete happy dance, and went back in the kitchen to finish a batch of Texas beef and pork chili, cheddar biscuits, French vinaigrette, clam chowder, and bone seven salmon for the night’s dinner rush. My excitement at working with two of my LA restaurant dream bosses was only slightly tempered by the fact that I was their second choice. They had offered the job to Dean, sous-chef at Trumps, but he was happy where he was and recommended me.

MSM/SF and I met in the construction zone on Melrose Avenue, next to L.A. Eyeworks, and had an instant connection. We talked excitedly about menu items, vendor choices, the difficulty of finding exotic ingredients, which line cooks were available, the new kitchen layout, the proposed start date, and ended the business meeting with a three-way jump-and-hug. 

I was waiting for the Sweetie by the door when he got home from work that night, “I got the job, I got the job!!” 

“Great”, he said. “What’s the salary?” 

“Well, we didn’t get around to that, but I’m sure it will be fine.”

Luckily, by the time I found out that I’d taken a pay cut, it was too late. Anyways, we opened in May, 1985. In 1983, MSM/SF had spent six months in Mexico traveling, eating, and living with Tacho, City Cafe’s prep cook. They gathered recipes and techniques from market vendors, home cooks, street corners and two year later, opened the Border Grill, LA’s first authentic Mexican restaurant, featuring food from Oaxaca and Yucatán. 

Mary Sue Milliken outside the Border Grill, 1985 (They never did take the old City Cafe sign off of the front door.)

MSM/SF in the crackerbox kitchen at the old Border Grill

I’ve wondered why there weren’t any exceptional Mexican restaurants in Tacoma. Oh there are plenty of AmeriMexican places with hot-to-the-touch plates spilling over with red rice, refried beans, and something under a blanket of red sauce but where is a Rubio’s, a Baja Fresh, or a locally owned spot that serves tlayudas, cactus salad, tongue tacos, tinga, and fresh pico de gallo?

Well, it took a teeth cleaning to find one. Always the last to know, I heard about Brewers Row from my hygienist, while tilted back in a dentist chair with a suction hose and a metal pick in my mouth. “You have to go there. Their jalapeño breakfast biscuits and carnitas tacos are the best!”

The boys that make it all happen.

Now that I knew, I wasted no time—I drove home, picked up the Sweetie, we went directly to Brewers Row, at 26th and Alder, and ordered one jalapeño breakfast biscuit with house-made chorizo and one carnitas taco plate—they were indeed the best. The menu includes, might I add, tlayudas, tongue tacos, tortas, horchata, great coffee selections, artisan tap beers, and delightful desserts. Mean Yelpers might whine about a $6.00 taco, but as for me I’ll gladly pay on Tuesday for a great taco in an art and music-filled room today.

So thanks to my great hygienist, who makes my quarterly teeth cleaning episodes something to look forward to, I have sparkly whites and a new favorite restaurant.

Border Grill Chicken Chilaquiles  Yield: 6 to 8 servings 

  • 2 cooked chicken breasts, shredded
  • 3 cups Red Roasted Tomato Salsa (see recipe) 
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream 
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 medium yellow onion, sliced paper-thin
  • 12 large tomatillos, husked, cored, and thinly sliced 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 12 day-old 6-inch corn tortillas, 18 if individual casseroles are being made
  • Butter for greasing casserole
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) grated Mexican manchego cheese 
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) grated panela cheese
  • 1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated añejo cheese  

In a large mixing bowl, combine the salsa, cream, salt, pepper, onion, tomatillos, and shredded chicken pieces. 

Heat the vegetable oil in a medium skillet over medium- low heat. Cook the tortillas just about 5 seconds per side to soften, and then transfer to a large colander to drain. 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 4-quart casserole or 6 to 8 individual casseroles.

Combine the manchego, panela, and añejo cheeses in a mixing bowl. 

To assemble the chilaquiles, spread a thin layer of the cheese mixture over the bottom of the baking dish. Push the solids in the bowl of chicken and salsa to the side so that the liquids form in a pool on one side. Dip all the softened tortillas in the pool to moisten. Layer one third of the moist tortillas over the cheese and top with half of the chicken mixture with its sauce. Sprinkle half of the remaining cheese over the chicken. Repeat the layers, ending with a layer of tortillas on top. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. 

Bake for 30 minutes or until the edges are slightly brown. Let sit for 10 minutes before slicing or unmolding from individual casseroles.

Red Roasted Tomato Salsa 

Yield: 1 quart 

  • 1 pound Roma tomatoes, cored
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 serrano chiles, stemmed and seeded 1 medium onion, cut into 1/2-inch slices 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup tomato juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Pepper to taste 

Preheat the broiler. 

Place the tomatoes, garlic, chiles, and onion on a foil- lined baking tray. Drizzle with the olive oil. Broil 6 to 8 inches from the flame for about 12 minutes, turning frequently with tongs, until evenly charred. 

Transfer the vegetables and any accumulated juices to the blender or food processor. Add the tomato juice, salt, and pepper. Puree, in batches if necessary, until smooth. 

Pour into a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, for about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Cool to room temperature for table salsa, or use warm as an ingredient in rice or chilaquiles. 

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One Response to Sparkly whites and a new restaurant: Border Grill chilaquiles

  1. Jenni says:

    I love you, Marla. I have driven past that place, didn’t know what it was, and would never have gone there without your blog. Perfect post for the day after Cinqo de Mayo!

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