It’s the morning after Thanksgiving when Susan Feniger calls me, with her 14-year-old dog barking in the background. In just a week, her new restaurant Mud Hen Tavern will open in Hollywood, but that didn’t stop her from having 10 people over for a proper holiday dinner. “I could’ve cooked for 30,” she laughs.
Feniger and her partner-in-crime Mary Sue Milliken—a.k.a., the Food Network’s “Too Hot Tamales”—are best known as the chefs and owners behind the pioneering modern Mexican restaurant Border Grill. When it opened in Los Angeles in 1985—there are now several locations in the city, including a roving truck, as well as one at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas—it was a time when most Americans expected nothing more than skillet fajitas and gloppy yellow cheese from the cuisine.
“Like always, we just followed our passion and made the food we loved to eat,” says Feniger, who first joined forces with Milliken in the early ’80s to open the restaurants City Café and City. “There were things on the menu like panuchos, plantain empanadas, and gorditas that we weren’t seeing at the time. We did pickled pig’s feet and anticuchos, too, but no one ordered those. We didn’t think about it as daring at the time, we were just blown away by Mexican cuisine.”
Feniger and Milliken did the proper research by traveling to Mexico and learning about epazote, achiote, and masa firsthand in the markets of Mexico City with their prep cook’s mother. “We rode on a VW van to Veracruz, Mérida, and Playa del Carmen and ate on the streets. We wrote the entire Border Grill menu on the van while tasting around,” Feniger recalls.
For Feniger, this passion for food began to stir when she was a young girl growing up in Toledo, OH. Her mother was cooking constantly, and there were always guests swinging by the house. “She would brush Taystee white bread with butter, stack them up with Velveeta and paprika, and then put them in the freezer. When people came over they’d go into the hot oven and get golden brown. It doesn’t sound very good, but it was delicious,” she says. During high school, Feniger worked at Smith’s Cafeteria and followed up that restaurant stint with cafeteria duty in college, where she studied economics and business until her supervisor encouraged her to pursue culinary school.
Mud Head Tavern—a collaboration with executive chef and partner Kajsa Alger—is an ode to those early years, when Feniger would go eat fried bologna sandwiches with her father after Toledo Mud Hens games. “I love diners and old bars,” she says, and describes the tavern as a place to find “comfort pub food with ethnic flavors”— like chicken and waffles, roasted beet and horseradish pierogies, whiskey-braised short ribs, and cinnamon-roll bread pudding—washed down by craft beer. It is, she adds, “a place to drop in and hang out.”
Feniger’s impressive, prolific career spans more than three decades. Here, she breaks down 10 of the global-inspired dishes that have helped cement her place in the culinary canon.