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Some of the Best Mexican Food in LA? A Full Review of Border Grill!


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Restaurants & Bars Los Angeles Area Mexican

Some of the Best Mexican Food in LA? A Full Review of Border Grill!

The Food Buster | | Jun 15, 2010 02:03 PM

I absolutely love Mexican food, and I really do think the best Mexican food is to be had in Los Angeles. And when I find a place like Border Grill that really utilizes traditional ingredients Mexican flavors and ingredients in interesting new ways, I'm in heaven. That's why I wanted to just give my formal review of it--while it may not be the best ever, it's definitely worth checking out for any lover of Mexican cuisine.

Source, with photos:

Border Grill
Entrées range from about $16 to $30. Expect to pay $50 for 3 courses and a drink.

1445 4th Street
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Like I’ve said before, Los Angeles has got to be the reigning king of Mexican food in the United States, and for good reason—with such a large Mexican population, you just can’t go wrong.

I was still pretty surprised, however, when a good Mexican friend of mine told me about the rather “authentic” cuisine at Border Grill, the brainchild of the Two Hot Tamales themselves (the celebrity chefs from the Food Network). The restaurant doesn't serve traditional Mexican dishes per se, but really knows how to utilize authentic Mexican ingredients for exciting new dishes, or so I was told. Needless to say, I was skeptical, and I had to confirm it for myself.

So I headed over during one of my family meals. I can’t say the drive or the neighborhood were all that great. I’m not going to lie—I’m not a big fan of Santa Monica. It’s known for somewhat of a rude crowd of people, narrow and crowded streets, lots of traffic, and just in general, a horrible drive. To be fair, though, it’s bursting with tons of life and money, and it is somewhat of the more liberal, hip, bohemian side of town, so it does somewhat fit the aim of Border Grill, which comes off as a very modern take on the traditional Mexican restaurant experience, at least in terms of ambience.

Immediately upon walking into the restaurant, I really was impressed. Gone are the tacky benches, the beige stone walls, the mariachis, and all the other stereotypes some might expect from a Mexican restaurant. Instead, you see a restaurant really full of life—brightly colored in orange-reds, with a very nice, sleek bar right in the front, and tons of people everywhere. Don’t get me wrong—you still sit at just plain, normal tables, and the decorations are still on the minimalist side, but you really feel like you’re in a hip place, which is nice. Like a traditional Mexican restaurant, though, it’s very suitable to groups and for family-friendly dining.

The service wasn’t quite as great, to be honest. In fact, it was just plain slow at times, but it’s understandable because the place is jam-packed during the whole night (Trust me, I could see my waiter practically racing across the whole restaurant every minute). However, the waiters are friendly and helpful enough to still make for an enjoyable experience.

As for the food, it’s tough to evaluate, since I’m not an expert on Mexican food to comment on exactly how authentic the food was. I do have to say, though, that I was very impressed. The typical Mexican dishes--ie. those in better-known Mexican restaurants--are mostly all gone in favor of lesser known, but extremely unique dishes, utilizing flavors that I have heard are very authentically Mexican but which you’d be hard-pressed to find in many Mexican restaurants. Examples include dishes with mole sauce, green corn tamales, and tons of plantains (delicious, by the way!). It really was refreshing to see some more variety.

More importantly, none of the food disappointed either—not one dish, in fact, was bad. Even the dessert, which I find downright horrendous at some Mexican restaurants, was fantastic. So if you really want a full-on 3-course meal, this is the right Mexican place. That said, I’ll get on to the specifics of each dish.

But before that, I do have to say that the restaurant was, overall, a fantastic success in almost every way. The food was just slightly more expensive than most other Mexican restaurants, but you can’t really even compare Border Grill with them, since it’s really its own creature. The Two Hot Tamales have managed to take the tried-and-true Mexican formula and infuse it with both innovation and some authentic ingredients to arrive at a unique Mexican experience that is easily one of the best I’ve had in Los Angeles.

What I’ve had:

- Margarita: Not the best I’ve had, but still very good. Has a strong liquor taste to it, which is refreshing. Quantity is a little skimpy, though, and half of the glass is taken up by ice.
Green corn Tamale: Actually, not bad. Strong corn flavor. Perfectly cooked. Very nice texture—sticky corn, but comes apart just like a nice, steamy cake. Can’t think of many better tamales. It’s just not for me.

- Chips and 3 salsas. At first, chips didn’t seem too good at the bar b/c they were cold. When we got a fresh batch, though, it was amazing. Salted perfectly, making them very addicting, even without salsa. Add 3 excellent salsas and you have it made. 2 Tomato based ones, one with a bit of spice and one with more of a strong tomato, sweet kick to it. Salsa verde not quite as good for me, but either way, great starter.

- Chicken Panucho (black bean stuffed tortilla • grilled chicken • serrano • tomatillo avocado salsa • pickled onion): This is a keeper! The tortillas are so fresh! You can practically taste the corn in them. Excellent stuffing, great flavors, great tortilla. Like a mini burrito. Very basic, but good.

- Plaintain Empanadas: Another mega keeper! Excellent taste. Banana flavor is there, but not over done. Nor is it overcooked/overfried. Perfectly balanced doughiness to it, and not overly greasy. Just right.

- Grilled Turkey (cracked black pepper vinaigrette • honey lime yams • seared greens): Really good surprisingly. You wouldn’t expect good turkey at a Mexican place, but that’s the charm of Border Grill. You can get unique dishes that are very well cooked, and even if they aren’t Mexican, they are done with a Mexican take. The honey lime yams were very good. Sweetness was right, but there was a slight tartness to it from the lime. It was very rich, too. The sweet tanginess really mixed well with turkey, though the turkey was not as good eaten alone. The quality of the meat is fantastic, too. It’s well-cooked, and the flavor works, too—somewhat smoky/spicy, especially b/c of the pepper, which adds a lot. Overall, it does not taste much like turkey—a bit more on the Mexican, spiced side. But that’s a good thing—feels like a unique take on turkey. Meat is very well cooked. Generous portion and good cuts of meat + great seasoning = an all-around solid dish. Just a bit too simple and boring in comparison to most of their other dishes.

- Cochinita Pibil (achiote pork roasted in banana leaves • caramelized onion • orange • cinnamon • roasted plantains • guacamole): Really good dish for what it is. Like a thick, rich stew of spiced pork in a pepper, tomato-like gravy. Very good, though a tad spicy. Meat is extremely well cooked. Very tender, juicy, moist, and sauce adds a great kick to it. Plaintains are even better—perfectly cooked, not mushy at all, nice sweetness to them that contrasts the sauce. Black beans were also rather good. Sticky, gooey kind, with some cheese on top. Definitely add a nice, gritty heaviness to dish. Corn tortillas are also provided and are freshly made. They make for great mini-pork burritos.

- Aztec Chocolate Cake: Keeper! Surprisingly, a chocolate cake at a Mexican restaurant that is very good. Served with whipped cream and spiced pecans. It has a great, smooth, lightness to it that makes it extremely easy to eat. Also, the chocolate is balanced. Not just one type of chocolate. I think it has some white chocolate in there too. All in all, not too intense, not too dark. Perfect balance of chocolate with cream. Also, custard center at end of cake that makes it even better—gives a heavier, bolder, vanilla-ish taste to it.

- Pastel Rufina (layers of puff pastry, sweetened cream cheese, chocolate chunks, and fresh berries): Really good too, but not as good as the Aztec cake. Berries aren’t really integrated into the pastry itself. They are mostly on the side. The cake itself is made of sweetened cream cheese with chocolate shavings on top. It’s pretty solid—like eating light cream. However, this time it’s not as flavorful as the Aztec cake, nor is it as multidimensional—it has one type of chocolate and a somewhat monotonous, uninspired cream. Good, but not quite great.

Ambience: 9.0/10
Service: 8.0/10
Taste: 9.2/10. Gains points for authenticity of ingredients, freshness, and creativity.
Value: 8.5/10-9/10. More expensive than most Mexican restaurants, but with much more variety, numerous unique dishes, and much better quality.
Overall Score: 9.1/10

Hope that helps!

Take care,
E. Mokhtarian
Food and Wine Blogger

Border Grill
1445 4th St., Santa Monica, CA 90401