CELEBRITY CHEF SUSAN FENIGER
HAS BEEN AN L.A. CULINARY FIXTURE & ICON FOR 30 YEARS DELIVERING GROUNDBREAKING FARE AT
BORDER GRILL, CIUDAD, AND NOW STREET
An award-winning American chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, and radio and TV personality considered a leading authority on Latin cuisine in the United States, Susan Feniger has been a fixture and icon on the Los Angeles culinary landscape for 30 years.
Teaming up with her longtime collaborator Mary Sue Milliken, the duo, known as the “Two Hot Tamales” from their Food Network series, first opened City Café on Melrose Ave back in 1981. In 1985 they debuted Border Grill followed by Ciudad in downtown Los Angeles in 1998. Most recently, the dynamic duo, in part due to the onset of the gourmet food truck phenomenon, unleashed the Border Grill Truck on the streets of Los Angeles.
And just last year, Feniger went solo with her first self-opened restaurant STREET where her love of travel and her insatiable appetite for the foods from other world cultures delectably comes to life.
Feniger notes: “Even though I’ve had formal training as a chef, I have found myself drawn time and time again to the food prepared over a simple cook-fire, or in a modest home from a recipe handed down across generations.”
Taking comfort food to a whole level at STREET, Feniger, who is also preparing to open a Border Grill at LAX next year, is once again blazing a trail of mouth-watering treats and delights in L.A.
LAdineNclub.com recently had the pleasure of talking to the groundbreaking celebrity chef.
LAdineNclub: Please talk about your fascination with street food.
Susan Feniger: For many, many years, even back when we opened City Café, then opened City, and then Border Grill, the food that I’ve always loved the most and was drawn to were those fantastic places in Mexico where you can get a torta or a fabulous taco where you’re out in the street and you can get those things all night long. I’ve always been drawn to the food that either someone cooks at home or the food that you find on street corners, or you go to a produce market or fish market and there’s a stand there that has some fantastic food. That is the food that I think is the most inspired and exciting food that’s out there. Whenever I travel I never think about going to eat in restaurants, it’s just not what I’m drawn to. I’m way more drawn to the interaction with the people who are cooking the food and learning about their lifestyle and the culture through the people that are cooking the food. With Border Grill, that’s definitely the inspiration, and for me, with STREET, when I’m traveling in India or Turkey or Israel, I love that food that you get when you’re walking down some street and somebody is cooking something over an open fire.
Where have you found the best street food?
I’m probably biased to India, but certainly I’ve had amazing food inspired by streets from all over the world, some of it is street food and some of it is somebody inviting us to their home to eat some great thing, but I had fabulous food in Turkey and on the streets in Italy and Spain and Mexico, but if you ask me if there’s a place that most inspires me, India for sure.
Is it true the Paani Puri is the instigator for STREET?
I don’t know if it’s the instigator but it’s one of those great dishes that you don’t get very much in Indian restaurants in this city. If you go to Artesia, maybe you can find it a little bit. It’s one of those great visual dishes.
What would you say is the STREET signature dish?
I think the dish that’s most loved and most talked about is the Kaya Toast from Singapore. That dish is Singapore street food and it’s also a hangover cure. So many people order it and absolutely love it. I’m blown away by it. It has very unusual and interesting flavors and people are just blown away by it. And the Japanese Tatsutage Fried Chicken is another dish that people just die for.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
The thing I think about the kinds of food that I love to eat, I definitely love sweet and salty. I think that’s a very interesting combo. I like dishes that feel very simple conceptually, not very simple to make necessarily, for example, we have a dish on the menu, Brazilian Acarajé, it’s grounded and fermented black-eyed peas made into a fritter, and then we stuff that fritter with malagueta chili and slaw, that’s pretty basic but it’s totally a great dish. I think things about flavor way more that I think about looks…thank God I do have chefs that do care about the look. When I eat I like to make sure there’s a balance of acid and salt. I like things to be strong-flavored and stand out. We do this Vietnamese Pulled Pork Sandwich and if there’s not enough of the slaw and enough of the acid and the juice of the slaw, then the sandwich is too rich. It’s all about the balance. I’m really a big one about balancing flavor.
Please talk about the green kitchen you have at STREET.
We’re not as green as we could be but we definitely make a big effort at Border Grille, Ciudad, and STREET to serve meats that are hormone free. We try to use the farmer’s markets as much as we can. Our dairy at STREET is organic. We serve reverse osmosis water, so we don’t sell flat water we just give it away. Our chairs on the inside are all recycled. The bar tops and outside table tops and the bathroom counter tops are all made from recycled press paper which is the material for skateboard ramps. We try really hard to do as much as we can and we push ourselves to get better at it.
Did you feel any pressure opening STREET - your first solo restaurant?
It was just something that I thought about for so long and really wanted to do and my girlfriend just encouraged me to take that step. We’re busy and totally growing Border Grill, we just opened a Border Grill stop at Figueroa and Wilshire and we have LAX coming onboard, but this is something that I really wanted to do and 25 years from now I didn’t want to miss out on something that I felt passionate about.
And this will be your second summer serving your Hollywood Bowl Bento boxes, right?
We’re totally jazzed about doing the bento boxes again, they’re so cool! It can be such a totally pain in the butt to go up to the Hollywood Bowl but we’re placed perfectly that someone can swing by STREET, pull into the back and we’ll run the bento boxes out to you and they’re just such a cool way to go. You can get a box and inside it has a lot of different choices, for example, and of course you can order anything you want, but we’re offering my most favorite chilled soba noodles that come with the Japanese Fried Chicken, and we have the Burmese melon salad, Indian spiced potato served with yogurt and tamarind date chutney, and you have dessert which this year we’re doing the Tunisian Carrot Pastry, and you have your choice of entrees, and this year we’re doing Syrian Lamb Meatballs with hummus and date-carob molasses, Tatsutage Fried Chicken with spicy kewpie sauce, African Beef Skewers with Sudan style dried tomatoes and onion jam, and Mediterranean Falafel Skewers with roasted eggplant, stuffed peppadew peppers, cucumbers, and Tahini hot sauce.
So you get all these incredible taste, and we’re also doing a box of wonderful pastries including: Turkish Éclairs with cardamom, pistachio cream and milk chocolate; Peanut Butter and Jelly Cookies; Dark Chocolate Truffle Cookies with Bourbon Cherries; and Rosewater Macaroons with dried apricot.
I love the bento boxes because they’re an interesting meal in one box with a great assortment of flavors that are easy to carry.
People just need to order the day before, right?
We have some flexibility but we’re trying to push people to order the day before and if it’s between 3-7pm you pull up into the back on your way to the Hollywood Bowl or the Greek or the Ford and we’ll run them out to you.
Where do you want to see STREET go?
We’d love to do a STREET book and open more STREETS. We just finished year one and we opened in probably the worst time to open but we want to see it grow because we think it’s a great urban concept for sure.
Please talk about relationship with Los Angeles.
We opened our first restaurant 29 years ago. Before that I was working at Ma Maison when Wolfgang Puck was the chef there and I feel that it was such an incredible time in Los Angeles. Celebrity chefs weren’t celebrities yet. When I opened City Café, I had to call Wolf, who had just opened Spago, to get his purveyor to make sure they’d deliver to us everyday because we had no room to keep anything. There was such camaraderie with everybody at that time and I just feel that the camaraderie in this city has really been something that I love. We feel that we are all really helpful to each other. I just think L.A. is progressive and exciting and open and liberal. I’m gay and I’ve been with my partner for 15 years and I’m on the board of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center and I feel that Los Angeles is so progressive and I feel lucky to have opened here and been able to be in business for the last 30 years in this city. Everyone wants to try new restaurants but I feel that this city is loyal and there’s something magical about being 15 minutes from the most gorgeous beaches and you can go hiking in the mountains, or you can drive for an hour and a half and be out in the middle of fantastic Joshua Tree. In that way, there’s such a charm about L.A. It’s such a rich place to live for a food person.
Photos courtesy of http://www.eatatstreet.com
Photography from Helena Ruffin