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

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: http://www.thefoodbuster.com/border-g...

Border Grill
Mexican
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
http://www.thefoodbuster.com

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

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  1. First, let me start by saying that your review is extraordinarily condescending. Most people on this board have a clue about authentic Mexican -- and it can be had at numerous restaurants in this city. To preface your review by suggesting readers here don't have a clue about "authentic" Mexican is absurd.

    Second, Border Grill is not authentic by any stretch. It is creative and inventive -- or was when it first opened 30 years ago -- but it plays on traditional tastes and flavors and presents them in unusual ways.. Maybe it seems authentic to people who consider El Torito, Acapulco and Baja Fresh to be "authentic" Mexican, but more authentic food can be found at Chichen Itza, La Serenata (in East La), Babita, Moles La Tia, Guelaguetza, Flor de Yucatan, Monte Alban, and many of the thousands of little taquerias that litter the city.

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

    Monte Alban
    11927 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA

    Chichen Itza
    3655 S Grand Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90007

    La Serenata
    10924 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90064

    Moles La Tia
    4619 E Cesar E Chavez Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90022

    3 Replies
    1. re: Jwsel

      Agreed. Of course, the poster notes that he's not an expert on Mexican food. Still, I'd say that the LA chowhounds are by and large very fluent in all Mexican cuisine. And we are blessed with a huge range of eateries encompassing the vast riches of Mexican food-- the nouvelle Mexicans like Border Grill, the great authentic joints you mention and quirky gems like Enrique's in Long Beach (Guadalajaran-style).

      I love what Mary Sue and Susan are doing at Border Grill, but it's not authentic-- just good.

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

      1. re: rjw_lgb_ca

        Sorry guys, I really wasn't implying that I was an expert at all in Mexican food, because I'm not, and I have no qualms admitting. Nor was I saying that other people don't know much about it. All I was trying to say is that I was surprised when I talked to my own friends, who told me most of what I was eating wasn't authentic and suggested something new. Remember, I'm coming from the viewpoint of a normal consumer, just going to a place I was recommended.

        Nor do I make a contention that Border Grill is the most authentic, just that it's more authentic than most places I've seen.

        That said, I've amended the review to try to take out anything that might suggest a condescending attitude. I appreciate the input, and if you see anything else that you consider offensive, feel free to tell me--that's really not the attitude I'm going for.

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

        1. re: The Food Buster

          Dear Foodbuster,

          Thanks for review. No need to apologize. The only injury you did was to some pretensions.

          I happen to agree that Border Grill does some things well. I like the bar itself quite a bit, and the ambiance. I have been there only on two occasions during evening rush, and found the service to be great, including meals, IF sitting at the bar. Get a shot of good tequila rather than a Margarita because you will be ripped off on the latter.

          The food? It's okay. Nice and fresh but not too dangerous. Nothing to write home about in my opinion but I'd be thrilled to be able to just crank that out easily in my home kitchen.

          For authenticity, I have been working my way through a number of little holes in the wall and trailers/trucks in Highland Park on York St. There are three or four of them strung along the north side of the street and I have yet to encounter anything not totally authentic and excellent.

          A couple of weeks ago I had birria which knocked my socks off. I'm sorry that I can't remember which of the restaurants served it. But it was just excellent, and a person looking for excellent Mexican food just can't go wrong stopping at any one of those places on York.

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

    2. I'm not an expert but I know what I like. Border Grill and La Serenata de Garibaldi on 1st in East LA are my favorites when it comes to Mexican Food. Thanks for the review.

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

      La Serenata
      10924 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90064

      5 Replies
      1. re: Baron

        I don't understand why Border Grill gets so much love. I've eaten there twice now and tried a good bit on the menu, and to my mind, it's entirely overrated. Certain menu items, like the lamb tacos, are to die for. Most of it, however, is average to poor. The tamales with mole don't hold a candle to the same dish at Monte Alban. My girlfriend, a pescotarian, had the grilled fish tacos and said they were forgettable. Not to mention every time I sit in that place, I feel like I'm in the bowels of Space Mountain.

        The biggest crime however, is their margarita. That crap is piss-poor. We went there after the US/England soccer match and got a pitcher. For $48 bucks (basically $12/marg.), you get the same lime green swill you could get at Chili's. I'd much rather go to El Carmen and get an amazing spicy margarita for $9.

        As a Westsider, I go to Monte Alban for my Oaxacan, Taqueria Sanchez for my taco fix, and Mariscos Chente for my Mexican seafood (but not sure if my girlfriend will go back if they're not doing the pescado zerendeado anymore). Border Grill is overpriced and can't compete with any of these restaurants.

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        Monte Alban
        11927 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA

        Taqueria Sanchez
        4541 S Centinela Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90066

        Mariscos Chente
        4532 S Centinela Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90066

        El Carmen Restaurant
        8138 W 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90048

        1. re: mwallace930

          It's been a couple of years since I've been to the Border Grill. Maybe it's gone downhill.
          Great margaritas at Casa Sanchez.

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

          1. re: mwallace930

            Your comment saddens me. I can recall when Border Grill was a little store front on Melrose. They only had wine margaritas then, but they were very good, much better it seems than what you experienced of late. Too bad.

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

            1. re: mc michael

              Me too. I think Border Grill gets so much love because it is the first place in the city that did "upscale" Mexican of any sort. When it was that storefront on Melrose, it was a revelation compared to what passed as Mexican for most of the westside, e.g., El Torito, Acapulco, Red Onion, El Carmen, and El Cholo. I remember having their shrimp in ancho chile sauce, because that was the first time I had ever heard of, let alone tasted, ancho chiles. But that was in the mid-1980s. I think most people's -- and especially 'hounds -- general understanding of Mexican food and its regional specialties have changed.

            2. re: mwallace930

              I understand your concerns, especially with the price. If someone's looking for something like a margherita, it really wouldn't make sense to go to Border Grill--too pricy, too small, and nothing to really brag about. There are quite a few menu items that I could see being entirely forgettable--in my own experience, the sugar cookies and some of the salads, for example.

              But it's really the gems on the menu, like the lamb tacos that you mentioned, that set it apart I think. For example, the Gaucho Steak, the Chicken Chilaquiles--those are things you can't find everywhere, and they're done quite well, in my opinion. Plus, I imagine that a lot of people go there because it's just really trendy.

              But I can see how Border Grill really is the type of place to have mixed opinions, depending on what you try on the menu.

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