Q & A With Mary Sue Milliken, Part 2: The Transformation of Ciudad, Lifting the Tablecloths + Some Thoughts on Food Trucks
In the first part of our interview with Mary Sue Milliken, the chef talked about her travels abroad (fish tacos in the surfing capital of Alaska, chasing dinner in Mongolia), which she somehow has had time to do while, with Susan Feniger, running not one but now two Border Grills and a roving food truck, roasting whole pigs in peoples' backyards, raising a family and a few too many pigeons, and, oh, probably a half dozen other things.
Border Grill Mary Sue Milliken
In the second part of the interview, Milliken picks up where she left off -- discussing how to save California, if Jerry Brown is taking a break from restaurant car wash crimes -- and turns closer to home.
Turn the page for Milliken's thoughts on changing over downtown's long-running Ciudad into a second Border Grill. Oh, and some thoughts on food trucks, of course. And check back in later for not one but two recipes. Hope you're hungry.
Squid Ink: So why did you and Susan decide to switch over from Ciudad to Border Grill?
Mary Sue Milliken: Well, we've been playing around with the menu down here for a long time. When we first got here, 12 years ago, it was such a businessman kind of place. You know, booming economy and all the offices filled with suits. It's changed a ton in 12 years. A lot of the offices are half-full, not so many people, and of course the economy has changed immensely. We're just finding that our customers are responding well to sort of Border Grill-leaning food. Food that you share. Sort of a fiesta atmosphere. We're going to lose the white tablecloths. The menu is going to change significantly, but it's not going to change so so so much. We're going to keep some of the real favorites, but we're going to lower the prices and revamp the menu -- that's part of why I was going to Mexico City -- and then, well, people couldn't even pronounce "ciudad." In Southern California that was pretty shocking.
SI: They couldn't pronounce it? We live in a "city." It's largely Spanish-speaking. That's kind of baffling.
MSM: You would be shocked.
SI: Can people pronounce it now?
MSM: No! I mean, I have people saying see-you-DAD. Oh, it's crazy. So anyway, I think it would be really fun to turn it [Ciudad] into a downtown version of Border Grill. We're working with the mural artists -- we've collaborated with them since 1985 -- a new graphic, new tables, we're changing the chairs, we're changing the menu.
SI: Removing the tablecloths. That's metaphorical too, right?
MSM: Exactly. I think it's the right timing for downtown. And for us. And hopefully we'll have our Border Grill at LAX one of these days. [Laughs.] We're still working on it.
SI: So John Sedlar was talking recently about why there aren't many Latino chefs in this town. Why do you think that's the case, assuming you agree?
MSM: Our chef here, Jaime Covarrubias, is Mexican. He worked at City in 1985 as a dishwasher. He was like 85 pounds. Now he's like 285 pounds. He's wonderful. Jaime opened Pasadena; he was the chef in Santa Monica; he went to Vegas, and was there for six or seven years. And when we decided that we wanted to turn this into a Border Grill we asked him if he'd come back. We're really lucky to have him. I think what it is in a lot of ways is culturally, maybe. A lot of the Mexican guys I know who are really talented and love to cook are not spotlight seekers. And maybe that's because the celebrity chef stuff isn't what they grew up with, or it just doesn't register.
SI: Maybe it just has to reach critical mass.
MSM: Or maybe Jaime's kids.
SI: So can we talk about food trucks?
MSM: We're having a blast with the food trucks. We started off by renting one, just as a test, like a year and a half ago. And then after about three months we knew we could make it work financially, and then we decided to buy one. The rental ones, you know, the city makes it quite difficult to jump through every single hoop to make sure you're completely compliant. And Susan and I have always made it a huge priority to follow the rules and get it right. But what's so exciting about these food trucks is that you can get in them and you can take it to places where people are kind of like, landlocked, for whatever reason. I find people get so excited, and we have these little orange stools that we scatter around in front of the truck and people hang out and talk to each other; they talk to us. I feel like we're creating a need.
SI: You're creating a community.