Two renowned chefs are making their return to Santa Monica next week with a fresh spin on the California-inflected Mexican cuisine that first endeared them to locals.

Three years after closing their popular restaurant Border Grill, chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken will open Socalo, which they describe as a California canteen and Mexican pub, in Mid-City’s Gateway Hotel. Border Grill was credited for introducing many Westsiders to regional Mexican cooking, and Feniger and Milliken said Socalo incorporates new influences from Baja, Sonora and the rapidly evolving Mexican-American food scene.

“The emphasis we used to have on trying to be as authentic as possible has kind of shifted because in Mexico they’re really being innovative with their cuisine, and in L.A., New York and Chicago, all sorts of incredible Mexican food is being created,” Milliken said.

Socalo will open Thursday for counter-service breakfast and lunch, with happy hour and dinner to follow at a later date. It will offer a range of Mexican craft beers on tap and specialty tequila, mezcal and other spirits.

Menu highlights include a breakfast burrito with refried beans, Oaxacan cheese, crispy potatoes and chipotle aioli; jackfruit tinga tacos with roasted poblano, crispy jalapeño and avocado tomatillo salsa; and lamb birria with consomé, escabeche, tomatillo mint salsita. Milliken said diners can expect to find the chefs’ housemade seasoning — smoky, citrusy ground chiles with salt — on “just about everything.”

Many items on the menu are vegetarian, vegan or health-conscious, Milliken added.

“It’s the way of the future,” she said. “Part of our responsibility is to create dishes that are really satisfying and delicious, but also healthy for the planet and our bodies.”

Feniger said she is most excited about the tacos vampiros and salsa macha, two items the chefs haven’t worked with before. Vampiros, a style of taco in which the tortilla is fried on the comal with griddled cheese, meats and salsa, have exploded in popularity in Los Angeles over the past five years. Socalo will serve versions with steak, shrimp and just cheese.

“I love the smoky flavor that comes from the griddled cheese on the comal,” Feniger said. “We top it with salsa macha, which is completely addictive. To have a dish or ingredient that people find addictive is such an amazing thing because you don’t find often find items that you just crave.”

The restaurant, which is more intimate than Border Grill’s large, bustling former location, is intended to serve as an all-day hangout, Feniger said. The clue is in the name: Socalo is a combination of zócalo, the central plaza of many Mexican towns, and SoCal.

“We have two big tables in the bar and a lot of booths throughout the space,” Milliken said. “The bar is indoor-outdoor and very communal.”

Milliken and Feniger said they are excited to serve a part of Santa Monica that has historically had few notable restaurants (Bruce Marder’s Rooster and Ratree Boonpatara’s Thai Vegan II are recent entries to the neighborhood). For those arriving from further afield, the restaurant offers 90 minutes of free parking in the Gateway Hotel.

“There’s so much demand in Santa Monica for truly local places and it’s important to us is that this is a place where people get an early morning coffee, come in for brunch and hang out at happy hour,” Feniger said.

madeleine@smdp.com

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