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Published: Tuesday, 10/23/2001

Culinary trailblazers

BY KATHIE SMITH
BLADE FOOD EDITOR
Mary Sue Milliken, left, and Toledo native Susan Feniger talk to food writers and editors on the patio of the pair's Border Grill in Las Vegas during the annual conference of the Association of Food Journalists. Mary Sue Milliken, left, and Toledo native Susan Feniger talk to food writers and editors on the patio of the pair's Border Grill in Las Vegas during the annual conference of the Association of Food Journalists.
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LAS VEGAS - Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken - chefs, restaurateurs, cookbook authors, radio and TV personalities - do it all. They are on a roll as they bounce from city to city juggling food projects and businesses.

Barely two weeks after the opening of their latest Border Grill restaurant in Pasadena, Calif., on Sept. 28, the twosome flew into Vegas to host a luncheon during the annual conference of the Association of Food Journalists.

On the patio of the Border Grill at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in 85-degree weather with sunny skies, the 100 food writers and editors sip sandia - a beverage of pureed watermelon - and minty lime coolers as they sample hors d'oeuvres such as plantain empanadas, Mexican chopped salad with toasted cumin vinaigrette, green corn tamales, and ceviche.

That is just the beginning.

Served family style, platters of skirt steak with sauteed heirloom tomatoes, chile relleno with cactus paddle salad, grilled turkey with quinoa salad, and mahi mahi with tiger prawns on rice brought kudos from the critics. (Quinoa is a tiny, grainlike seed of an herb plant.)

Cheers of chocolate passion result as desserts are passed among those at each table. The desserts include Mexican flan made with homemade condensed milk, tres leche cake, an apple tart, Mexican chocolate cream pie, and a flourless chocolate Oaxacan cake.

Between courses, Toledo native Ms. Feniger and Michigan native Ms. Milliken grab microphones and greet this gourmet crowd with explanations of the dishes. I hear bits and pieces like:

Susan: “We love to serve cold food with hot [spicy] salsa,” referring to the ceviche appetizer.

Mary Sue, on the art of preparing the cactus paddle salad: “Don't buy bottled cactus.” Fresh cactus paddles are preferred.

Susan, referring to the grilled turkey on this day's luncheon menu: “There are all different uses of turkey. We have always served turkey. It's an underutilized meat.”

Mary Sue, discussing interesting Mexican ingredients: “They use animal crackers to bind the moles in Oaxaca,” a state in southeastern Mexico.

Sure enough, the recipe we receive for molito rojo for grilled fish includes one cup graham cracker crumbs or ground plain animal crackers.

As the last food writer pushes away from the table, Mary Sue apologizes because she can't stay for the prearranged interview; she has to catch a plane by 4 p.m. “Anyway, I'm not from Ohio,” she says.

Susan is ready to talk, but first she has to look at some legal papers. Not only have the business partners just opened the Pasadena location, they will open their fifth restaurant in December in trendy Green Valley, Nev.

The Mandalay Bay restaurant's interior is decorated in warm yellows and burnt orange, and retro art by Su Huntley and Donna Muir, old friends of the restaurant's owners who made a road trip to Mexico with them, according to Carollyn Bartosh, director of marketing.

With large windows that let in the Nevada sunshine, there are also entrances from the Mandalay near the taqueria take-out window and a bar that empties into the Mandalay Bay Convention Center.

The Border Grill in Santa Monica, Calif., serves street food of Mexico, and Ciudad in downtown Los Angeles presents bold and seductive flavors of the Latin world from Havana to Buenos Aires and Barcelona.

If this tempo sounds breathless, it is. Call it perpetual culinary motion or trailblazers from the get-go, these classically trained culinary school graduates have transformed themselves from Midwesterners into two authorities on the Latin kitchen.

The Pasadena Border Grill opened two weeks after Sept. 11 when the terrorist attacks on the United States occurred.

“It was 98 percent built,” Ms. Feniger tells me over a cafe latte on the patio. “We're confident the market will come back. The advantage of our restaurants is the price point: $15 for lunch and $23 for dinner on the average. People who want to go out and have an experience can come here. We're somewhat recession proof.”

“Pasadena was mind-boggling. We were totally jammed [with customers]. We were prepared to cut staff if we had to, but it was just the opposite. The first day and night, we served 1,100 people. The second day it was 1,600. On the busiest day in Santa Monica, we [serve] 800.”

Ms. Feniger and Ms. Milliken are hands-on owners. “It was so good,” says Ms. Feniger. “It was so busy. We weren't prepared to do double in Santa Monica. We were all chopping [vegetables] as fast as we could.”

The duo have written five cookbooks: City Cuisine (William Morrow), Mesa Mexicana (William Morrow), Cantina (Sunset), Cooking with Too Hot Tamales (William Morrow), and Mexican Cooking for Dummies (IDG).

Known as Too Hot Tamales via their 296 episodes of the Food Network series Too Hot Tamales and Tamales World Tour, they have recently signed to do a new series with PBS. The name of the show is to be determined.

More recently, they prepared the food for the movie Tortilla Soup, which was filmed in Los Angeles during the summer of 2000. “We were approached by Samuel Goldwyn about this project,” says Ms. Feniger. “It takes place in L.A. with a Mexican family. The father is a chef with a catering business. He does traditional food, such as what we serve at Border Grill. The character's daughter does nuevo Latino, like what we make at Ciudad. The food scene is at Nancy Silverton's mom's house in Encino.” Nancy Silverton owns La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles.

The mother-daughter connection makes it fitting for the daughter of Ruth and Yale Feniger of Toledo to mention this: “I was totally inspired by my mom,” says Ms. Feniger. “She's a fantastic cook. She helped us with the opening of Border Grill in Santa Monica. In the 1980s, she made frozen ice box cakes and shipped them to us to serve.”

Ms. Feniger recalls her mom's “wonderful brisket, noodle pudding, and salad seasoned perfectly,” she says. “I still do steaks at home exactly the way my mom does with salt, pepper, paprika, worcestershire sauce, and a little mustard.”

As for her favorite dishes to cook, “I love street food from every culture. I love great tacos. We've taken food like that, that someone's grandmother makes, and bring it into an atmosphere like this,” she says, waving her arm toward the two-story restaurant that connects directly to the Mandalay Bay. “I love ethnic food - Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Indian.”

But there's not much time for home cooking. “We're swamped with the fifth restaurant opening in December and 500 employees,” she says. “The only way to grow is to have great [staff]. It's important for customers to feel there's no attitude here, only friendly service.”



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