Monday, February 2, 2009

DineLA with Too Hot Tamales @ Border Grill (Santa Monica)

It's that time of the year again where people get to try out some of the restaurants that is on their "to try" list at a fraction of a price. Yes, it's DineLA Restaurant Week again!

For those of you that are familiar with DineLA Restaurant Week, this is where you get an opportunity to try a three course prefix meal at Lunch or Dinner in some of the more prestigious restaurants at a fraction of a cost. On the website, you will get a list of participating restaurants that will be offering lunch starting at $14 to dinner at $44 for that elusive three item course. Some are at a bargain while others are not so much. This is where you will do some menu comparing to see if the place does offer benefits in checking out for their specials.

As in for me, I had been meaning to try Border Grill for some time and this was a good opportunity to do so. This restaurant was started by two female chefs, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger (otherwise known to TV audiences as Too Hot Tamales on Food Network) who were coworkers at a Chicago restaurant back in the old days. In some ways, both of them are considered a pioneer in a profession dominated by men. When they decided to open up this restaurant back in the 90s, they fashioned this restaurant as a Mexican street food that is repackaged into a Mexican gourmet served in a beautiful, colorful cantina style restaurant.

For some purist who decried this is as a glorified "Gringo Mex" (even though Tex-Mex is the nicer word) that the Mexican fare is being conceived by two Caucasian female chefs whose culinary background training does not consist of Latin or Spanish cooking. It didn't sit very well for some die hards of traditional Mexican food. Especially in LA where the population is majority on the Latin side.

However, with good words of mouth are being passed out, this restaurant not only have survived, but the chef duo also have opened up a popular Spanish fusion place in downtown LA called Ciudad. For every Sunday evening, these two chefs would be in charge of Tapas night served here. I had the honor of dining on one of those Sunday night tapas and let me tell you, it was fantastic if you have never tried it out.

For $16 for a appetizer, main course, and a dessert for this DineLA Restaurant week special, it was worth trying out to see how this place stacked up and also to see what was the fuss all about.

The restaurant was easy to find and has a nice smooth modern look. Before we get into the dining area, they have a bar facing out to the front door where I suspect they have done big business with the Happy Hour crowd in Santa Monica. I noticed you have to play up to that kind of crowd up here as even the fancy Ainsette nearby, which have also catered to the Happy Hour crowd by opening up their bars every late afternoon.

North End Wall

In the Ceiling and near the north end wall of the restaurant, there are a lot of mural paintings that are very decorative and playful for the casual dining experience. If you have to ask me what I thought of it, I can give you the critique in that art will be appreciated with the crowds that dine here regularly. For me, it was just odd, but it does not affect my dining experience either way.

The Ceiling Mural

To start off, we get a choice out of three appetizers. However the restaurant posted a different menu on DineLA's website and presented a menu with a few minor changes. In the end, majority of our dining group was split between a plantain empanada and the green corn tamale. Because of the mixup with the menu, the restaurant to give everyone of us both the empanada and the green corn tamale.

Appetizers: Green Corn Tamale (R) and Plantain Empanada(L)

I extremely enjoyed the green corn tamale. Instead of rice base, it was a creamy corn wrapped in a corn husk. The plantain empanada is not a banana plantain inside of an empanada. Rather, it's a plantain skin covering black beans, poblano peppers, and cotija cheese. Totally caught off guard by that because I was literally expecting an empanada that is rich with sweet plantain, but this version of empanada is not bad at all. Sweet on the outside, salty in the inside makes it sweet and sour for that little package.

The main course got into a more rocky road. I was expecting a Short Rib Pilbil, but instead got a Cochinita Pibil instead. What's the difference? I think the restaurant messed up the menu presented to DineLA weekly because the short rib was only available on dinner while the Cochinita is for lunch. Cochinita was slow cook stewed pork roasted in their banana leaf with some grilled onion, orange, and cinnamon mixed into the flavors of this stewed pork. The plate was presented along with their roasted plantain tortilla, organic rice, and black beans.

You can imagined that dinner will be replacing the stewed pork with the short ribs instead. I didn't mind the mix up because I would have ordered the cochinita pibil instead have I not ordered the short rib, but the staff tried to present this item as though I have ordered a short rib. It wasn't cool of them for not informing of the change and tried to test my taste buds in determining the difference.

Cochinita Pibil (Slow cook stewed pork with organic rice, black beans, and plantain tortilla)

The dessert was between Azteca Chocolate cake, Tre Leches, and the flan. Taste buds tells me to pick the chocolate cake, but my instincts tells me to go with Tres Leches. In the end, I went my guts as it ususually makes a good tie-breaking decisions and it paid off. The tres leches is a sponge cake that is made from three different milk (evaporated milk, condensed milk, and sour cream). Being that the cake is suppose to be wet, but not soggy for the cake texture, I love this restaurant's version of the Tres Leches. It was very moist and held up very well when the cake get presented. In some versions, it's way too dry or the cake will fall apart like a bad sour cream yogurt. This Tres Leches was more than satisfactory.

Tres Leches

Even though I wasn't too pleased about being not informed on the changes of the menu, I did have a good service. The three courses would have added up to $30 if I have come on any other days. The dispute from many other restaurants during DineLA restaurant week was that the portions are smaller for these prefix meal. For me, the portion was just right because I was stuff and couldn't eat another bite.

For $16 compare to that $30, it was a deal that was worth it just to try out a new place that otherwise would have been put off until .....arrrhhh...Ok I'll admit it, until likely to be never visited. If you are a fan of the Ciudad's tapas night or their Spanish fusion, come out to the westside for this unique take on Mexican street food.

It was worth coming out, but I would stay away from the Happy Hour crowd of Santa Monica. It's true for any Santa Monica's place for those kind of crowd.

Border Grill
1445 4th St
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 451-1655


Border Grill on Urbanspoon


EatTravelEat said...

Great review! I have heard a lot on Border Grill and your review on it gave some good info. Food looks good, and for 16 dollars seems like it is a good deal too.

Right Way to Eat said...

Hi EatTravelEat,

Thank you very much for that kind compliment! For $16, it's worth the try and that's what DineLA Restaurant week was aiming at. Discounted price for a simple prefix meal.You'll find out really quick if you are going to like the place and whether or not it was worth going back at regular price.

Most people will take it as a hit or miss.