Star chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken launch their new baby in Santa Monica
By Kellie ChudzinskiMary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger’s festive Border Grill franchise has been a Los Angeles-area institution for nearly 35 years. Back in the mid-1980s, bringing farmers market ingredients and fine-dining techniques to regional Mexican fare was a transformative idea. That fresh approach not only anchored a successful restaurant, but propelled Milliken and Feniger to Food Network fame with their long-running series “Too Hot Tamales.”
And so Border Grill’s flagship restaurant in Downtown Santa Monica thrived for 26 years, until a rent increase and a hunger to try something new prompted the dynamic culinary duo to shutter that location in late 2016.
Now Milliken and Feniger are back in Santa Monica, this time inside the Gateway Hotel, with a brand-new concept that feels a lot like a 21st-century evolution of Border Grill — switching things up, but just a bit.
Socalo brings their signature flavor palette to new dishes in what they describe as a California canteen and a Mexican pub. The name itself is a portmanteau of So Cal and zócalo, a reference to the public squares that are central to towns throughout Mexico.
With a large communal table (but also several booths) in its 99-seat dining room, a 12-seat patio, private party room and large windows facing Santa Monica Boulevard, the restaurant is designed to foster a sense of community.
“We really wanted it to be warm, comfortable … and have really delicious food. To be a place where people could gather and hang out, and be able to have it feel like a neighborhood joint,” says Feniger, who’s especially jazzed about offering 90 minutes of free parking. “Our GM has wanted to say that it would be like a modern-day Cheers — somewhere people feel like they can come in for breakfast and have their coffee or come in for a happy hour and hang out.”
Socalo is Milliken and Feniger’s first foray into breakfast service, starting at 7 a.m. daily. The breakfast menu includes sweet or savory granola (yogurt topped with fruit or veggies), a breakfast bowl (eggs any style paired with quinoa, one of several protein options, spinach and queso fresco), a breakfast burrito, and chorizo, potato or guava cheese empanadas.
“Being open for breakfast seven days a week, that’s a whole new experience that’s been fun to really explore,” adds Feniger, noting the chefs’ favorites include their savory granola and Buenos Dias Bowl with vegetarian Impossible chorizo. “And it’s the first time that we’ve done walk-up counter service.”
Dinner service, expected to begin Jan. 2, includes a raw bar platter, vegetable stew, and lamb or steak plates. Vampiro tacos, an occasional Border Grill food truck item, are a signature item. They’re made to order by first melting cheese on a flat griddle to add crunch, then sticking a tortilla to the melt, adding steak (or shrimp or veggies), and dousing with the house salsa macha. Jackfruit tinga tacos, a quinoa-and-veggie bowl, and a full-plate version of a shrimp cocktail are highlights of the lunch menu.
Of course happy hour is integral to the Socalo concept, with a full bar offering a strong selection of small-batch mezcals, wines and craft beers that mixologist Juan Martinez has sourced entirely from Mexico. Well, almost entirely — one of 12 draft beer taps will remain local, currently Santa Monica Brew Works Wit (a Belgian white). Los Cabos-based Baja Brewing Co. has an IPA, dark ale and blonde ale on the menu; Tijuana-based Border Psycho has an imperial stout and a double IPA. There’s also a session IPA and a porter from Colima, Dos Equis lager (Monterrey), a red ale from Ensenada, and a hoppy IPL (that’s India Pale Lager) from Guadalajara.
“We’re always trying to surprise and delight our customers with the new thing, what’s exciting and cool,” Milliken says of the niche bar options. “The spirits that are coming out across the border are just amazing. The mezcals are amazing. I think those are going to be really popular.”
One of the standout house cocktails ($12 to $16) is the Diego & I, which combines mezcal with Aperol, citrus, mango guajillo shrub and tajin for a balanced spiced and citrus flavor.
Both Milliken and Feniger credit Socalo Executive Chef Giovanni Lopez with wrangling their collaborative input to craft Socalo’s menu.
“We’re very comfortable with his palate and his decision-making. He definitely knows what we like, and we agree on flavors,” Milliken says.
Lopez has spent 15 years in Milliken and Feniger’s various restaurants, most recently helming the Border Grill in downtown Los Angeles. But the creative process includes everyone on staff.
“Our management style is very much trying to find a happy medium between what everybody wants,” Milliken explains. “I think our partnership definitely has flourished because we’re really interested in collaborating more than being the end-all-be-all boss. … It’s kinda fun to see what these chefs come up with, and then to just play with them in
Last year Milliken and Feniger became the first women to win the prestigious Julia Child Award, recognizing those who have had an outsized influence on the way Americans eat, drink and cook. Over nearly four decades together in the restaurant business — their first, City Café, opened on Melrose Avenue some 38 years ago — the chefs credit their shared dedication to collaboration for their lasting partnership and success.
“If you work with Mary Sue and me, you have to be collaborative,” adds Feniger. “Being chefs, I think we want to have input but we also want to have that person be able to come with great ideas, and that is why you’ve got to be a collaborative chef.”
When they closed Border Grill three years ago, Milliken and Feniger always hoped to return to Santa Monica — if and when the right opportunity presented itself. The Gateway Hotel was just the place, Feniger says.
“It’s a family-owned hotel. We love the owner’s whole philosophy. He approached us, and we just felt like it was the right location for us,” she explains. “We’re very excited to come back to Santa Monica.”
Milliken is excited that Socalo will aim to be a carbon-neutral, zero-waste enterprise. It’s a practice that starts with using ingredients to their full potential across the menu, as well as shrinking portion sizes to reduce food waste, avoiding plastic and Styrofoam, and implementing a recycling program.
Customers also have the option to add 1% to their check to benefit Restore California, an initiative that encourages farmers to adopt renewable farming practices focused on maintaining soil health. According to Restore California, food systems account for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions due largely to deforestation, manufacturing and waste.
“We’ve always tried to be leaders in our field,” Milliken says. “We take our responsibility seriously that we’re making decisions for how you’re going to eat based on everything we’re buying and the way we’re cooking it.”
Socalo is now open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily inside the Gateway Hotel, 1920 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. Call (310) 451-1655 or visit socalo.com.