1445 4th St., Santa Monica CA 90401 (map); 310-451-1655; bordergrill.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: The iconic modern Mexican restaurant serves up a seriously delicious burger
Want Fries with That? No; they're freshcut but not so well executed. Get some rice and beans instead!
Prices: Chile Relleno Burger (w/fries), $14.50; Border Classics sampler plate, $15.75
These days Los Angeles restaurants change menus like starlets change red carpet outfits, but not so at Border Grill. Amid the smog of the Los Angeles restaurant war this modern Mexican restaurant has blossomed into one of the city's culinary icons because its so damn reliably good. The juggernaut of culinary and personal appeal behind it all, chef duo Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, isn't so much a breath of fresh air as a reassuring hug of an old friend.
Certainly the pair have embraced the celebrity culture of being a chef these days; they were among the first wave of Food Network's chef stars with their show Two Hot Tamales, and more recently both have done a turn on Top Chef. But what makes them stars in my book is how they've maintained the integrity of Border Grill, the restaurant that made them chefs worthy of our attention. I've spent more evenings there than I can count, soaking my liver with their near perfect margaritas and mojitos while gorging on panuchos so good that you question why you eat anything besides Mexican food.
Of course, we all know the answer to that: because there are burgers. A recent lunchtime excursion to the Santa Monica outpost (the original) of Border Grill meant I could have it all, which, as you'd guess, I did.
The burger on Border Grill's lunch menu is the Chile Relleno burger ($14.50). No surprise what the star topping is, but the (very clever) addition of a cheese-stuffed pepper to this burger fiesta is just the beginning of why this is such an excellent riff on the American standard. The patty is six beautiful ounces of an 80/20 chuck and brisket blend that is all natural and antibiotic-free Angus beef from Meyers Ranch. The pepper is a roasted poblano stuffed with manchego, panela, and cotija cheeses, and is accompanied by a little Romaine lettuce and a splash of salsa. The bun is Rockenwagner's brioche, which—as we've seen before—is very good and not so much like a traditional brioche. It gets a hit of chipotle Thousand Island.
The first bite was a revelation. The ridiculously rich and flavorful beef had a fantastic char from the grill that stood tall against the cheese and pepper. The chile relleno, which I worried might overpower the patty, was much less the bully than I'd feared. Rather, the beautiful crunch from the frying gave wave to a perfect ooze of creaminess to match the char. This burger managed to overwhelm me and comfort me all at once. Its powerful combination of flavors and textures betrayed the balance that is a mark of a great chef (or two in this case). All the Mexican flavors, rather than distracting, makes this a burger—and its cultural blend—all the more American.
The brioche bun was able to hold all of the beef and toppings together. It's so much more pliable than its name would suggest; this is a brioche that makes this burger all the better.
The side of fries—fresh-cut, twice-fried Kennebec potatoes—didn't strike me as the equal of this impressive burger. In large part I'd say it was due to the dusting of cumin they get. It's a powerful and demanding spice that doesn't work for me on french fries.
That said, I did find room to sample the Border Classics plate ($15.75) that comes with green corn tamales, plaintain empanadas, and those magical panuchos. If you head to Border Grill for the first time it's almost a moral imperative you order this sampler. When I had it on this most recent visit, it was like eating them all again for the first time. Or, perhaps better stated, just as good as the first time.
Indeed, that's what I like so much about what Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger do with this restaurant. The dedication to reliably excellent food is apparent with each visit. This isn't to say there's nothing deliciously new at Border Grill. After speaking with Milliken I was surprised to learn that they'd resisted a burger addition to their menu for years. It took the memory of a delicious burger they'd made years before at a previous restaurant and a bit of creative epiphany to get a burger on the menu. The chile relleno would make the burger something special. What's even better? That I can count on it being just as good the next time I come back.