Before Susan Feniger and business partner Mary Sue Milliken became known as the Too Hot Tamales, the pair opened two now-iconic Los Angeles restaurants: Border Grill and Ciudad, which is now the location of Border Grill Downtown L.A. Feniger and Milliken were ahead of their time. Border Grill was serving up Mexican-style street food well before "street food" was a term heard all over the Los Angeles food scene.
In her 30-plus years as a chef, Feniger has opened several successful restaurants, co-written five cookbooks, cooked with Julia Child, co-hosted a wildly popular Food Network show, and competed on Top Chef Masters—but it wasn't until 2009 that she ventured off on her own for the first time, opening Los Angeles' STREET restaurant, focusing on global street foods.
How did a girl from Toledo, Ohio become known for bold flavors and street food from around the world? My mom was a fantastic cook, and part of being a good cook is seasoning things well. When she'd grill a steak she'd use paprika, Worcestershire, and just season it perfectly, which is no different than what I do now. I may turn to Latin, Indian, or Asian flavors, but it's all the same.
In high school my parents let me live in Holland and Israel for a little while and I think that really opened my eyes to other cultures and their food. My parents understood the importance of experiencing other cultures and lifestyles. I didn't know the language of the people where I stayed, but I quickly realized that food brings people together.
What is it about street food that you find so attractive?I'm just very drawn to the flavors of other countries, particularly those that are less developed. If you're interested in someone's food, you're interested in their culture. I like strong flavors and there's something about these simple dishes you find on the streets of Mexico or India, dishes that someone learned to make from their grandma and the dish has gotten better with time.
Are you at all surprised by how popular cooking competitions like Top Chef Masters have become? I wasn't familiar with Top Chef at all. I was asked to do the first season of Top Chef Masters, but I turned it down. When they asked me again, everyone in the restaurant was pushing for me to do it, so I did. When I was doing Too Hot Tamales our show was airing four or five times a day, seven days a week—but after Top Chef Masters I was more recognized than ever before. The depth of what Bravo is doing is kind of amazing.
For the first time in over 30 years, you have your own restaurant. How has it been? It's been really fantastic and very different. At Border Grill we have an extensive team, but we don't have that at STREET. We're very small here. It feels more grassroots. It's like having a flashback to the beginning when I first started.
You're very much a Los Angeles chef, but you're actually not from here. What is it about this city that inspires you? As a food person, L.A. is the place to be. I moved here 33 years ago from Chicago and was blown away by the produce here. Two of my favorite things on the planet are Hass avocados and artichokes, both of which come from California. This city has everything. You can go to Koreatown, Chinatown, Little Saigon, Little India, and get a taste of cultures you may not be able to otherwise. Moving here truly exposed me to all of the great ethnic food available.
In my very small backyard I have a plum tree, a peach tree, a lemon tree, an orange tree and a few others. Being able to grow your own food is very inspiring. It's so unique to California. There's something magical about being able to live in a city where you can grab a couple of oranges off a tree in your yard and have them for breakfast. It's a beautiful thing.