What Is 'California' Food, With Border Grill's Mary Sue Milliken And Susan Feniger

Over burritos and foldies, the Border Grill chefs reminisce and hash out what defines 'Cali' food

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"At that time, it was L'Orangerie, L'Ermitage, La Toque and Ma Maison, then at some point Trumps," Susan Feniger lists over a mess of burritos at Lupe's #2 in East L.A. To be specific, the burrito spread includes the hot chicharron; the special, which comes stuffed with chorizo; and the California, which contains a thick layer of guac and french fries.

"Ah, Michael Roberts," Mary Sue Milliken says without skipping a beat, leaning over the blue picnic table and remembering the whimsical chef behind the Melrose Avenue institution.

"I remember Michael Roberts having a green pea guacamole on the menu," Feniger adds.

"Isn't that funny?" Milliken chuckles.

That pea guacamole dates back to the early 80s (long before Obama slammed the infamous New York Times' recipe on Twitter last year), that golden era in California dining when the legendary chefs behind 1981's genre-bending City Cafe (RIP) and 1985's Border Grill shook up L.A.'s restaurant scene with food like som tum-esque mango salad and vegetarian cuisine before veg-forward was a buzzword. It was a time before the Santa Monica Farmers Market—military vets grew mizuna and chrysanthemum greens as horticultural therapy—and before California became an adjective for food, used to define sushi rolls, pizza kitchens and even this lovely hulking burrito at Lupe's. It made me, a born and bred Californian, wonder: What is 'California' food anyway?

"When you say 'California,' what part of California?" Milliken asks. "If you're down in San Diego as opposed to Sacramento, I do think it's probably weird, but to the customer, it means vegetable forward."

"Avocados in it. Herbs." Feniger adds.

But for the French-trained chefs who traded their steel-toed shoes and tall toques back home for tennis shoes and Champagne-fueled smoke breaks on the California coast, it's much more.  

"So our menu then was like this . . . ," Feniger begins, giving the City Cafe rundown, making Milliken laugh, " . . . cassoulet, pickled veal tongue with lobster sauce and sautéed pears, and potato bhujia."

"We changed the menu every day, and it would evolve just as to whatever we were feeling," Milliken adds. "I would say it was a time of exploration, getting outside the normal. The customers and the chefs were all really pushing themselves. It was like someone cut loose the idea that the restaurant had to be fancy French or a hamburger joint. We could mix this all up."

Which leads us to the leap from a period of experimentation to the modern response to the California burrito: the machaca-stuffed foldie at LocoL, Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson's mindful take on fast food, set right in Watts. Hip-hop is blasting, mod white cube seats double as tables; on the menu, there's everything from chile-laced glass noodles, green goddess-drizzled bulgur salads, "cheeseburgs" brushed with scallion relish, coffee roasted in-house, $1 collard greens and fresh-pressed juices.

"Very pastry cheffy," Feniger muses over the burg's bun, which is, in fact, engineered by Tartine's Chad Robertson.

"I wonder what the veggie nuggets are. Should I go order those?" Milliken asks, as she goes for round two of eating through LocoL's menu. "What else do you want to try?"

Though they may not be the ones glazing a tandoor oven with mustard oil and raw sugar like the man who sold it to them or learning the ropes of making flavorful El Salvadorian beans in Mexico like one favorite street vendor, the exploration continues for the Border Grill chefs. Yes, California food means a lot of green things, we muse together, but after eating a lot of tortillas stuffed with meat, remembering the good ole days and ravenously diving into these new ones, it seems like California is more than token ingredients.

"I love the mix, which is so California," Feniger gushes.

"Look at a guy like Ludo [Lefebvre] who came to work at L'Ermitage and what he's opened now," Milliken says of the very French chef behind both a French-Mex brunch spot and a fried chicken joint. "That is really part of the charm and the amazing power of L.A."

"It allows you to open up and do things that you didn't think you were going to do growing up," Feniger adds. "I mean Roy is a perfect example of that with his background and his training."

And so it turns out a pile of avocados doesn't make your food Californian, but rather that obsessive pursuit of flavor and technique, and the spirit of screwing it all and going with your gut.