Mid-July, Los Angeles weather has finally acknowledged that it's summer, shaking off the June gloom to reveal rising temperatures. The best (or at least, most fun) way to combat the heat? Icy seasonal cocktails. Which is why we jumped at the chance to sample Border Grill's new summer cocktail menu (as well as a parade of small dishes from the kitchen), premiering today. The cocktail list puts a fun, modern spin on traditional Mexican ingredients, echoing the food focus of Border Grill’s co-chefs and owners Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger.
Even without the new cocktail menu, the downtown Border Grill location seems like it’s designed almost specifically for unwinding after work. The great chips and (trio of) salsas, the playful décor, big patio and massive bar make it a prime happy hour destination.
While we sample the cocktails, the kitchen wisely sends out a little foundation for our stomachs. First up: a fantastic mushroom ceviche (below), an item not typically on the menu, that will be offered to DineLA diners over the course of the next several days. The tiny bite brightens up earthy seasonal mushrooms with lime juice and cilantro aioli, and gets a nice crunch from minced jalepenos, and crisp fried plantains.
The Fire/Water/Melon (below, left), made with Peruvian pisco, watermelon, lemon and serrano chile, may be the consensus favorite. Pisco literally translate to 'fire water' and keeping true to its name, the drink balances out its sweetness with a kick of heat. The Silver Surfer (below, right) is a little more divisive. Made with tequila blanco, celery mint shrub and sparkling water, this drink might not be for those opposed to celery. The vegetable is very prominent, but is surprisingly refreshing when combined with the crisp and clean notes of mint.
The squash blossom taco (below) is a big hit, stuffed with sweet kernels of corn and a trio of cheeses inside a crispy, fried, handmade corn tortilla. The delicious vegetarian bite is topped off with a little fried hoja santa, a large-leafed herb that makes another appearance in our next cocktail.
The Summer Santa (below) features the aforementioned hoja santa along with cacacha (Brazilian rum), raspberry, orange and lemon. Light and fruity, the unexpected aroma from the herb (think root beer and anise) grows on you with each sip.
Halfway down the expanded cocktail list, we take another food break. Chicken sopes with peanut mole (below) look small but are surprisingly filling, thanks to the thick maize shell.
The Andean Stallion (below) is a drink that combines two of our favorite base spirits, Fernet Branca and Pisco, with agave, lime and a dash of angostura bitters. Lovers of the Italian amaro will relish the combination, while the uninitiated may find this an approachable introduction to a medicinal spirit that is widely considered an acquired taste. The Pisco and Fernet have crossed oceans to be together, and let me tell you, their love story tastes great in a chilled martini glass.
Just how good are the quinoa fritters (below)? Well, good enough to win Mary Sue Milliken a challenge on Top Chef Masters. The same winning recipe is on display here, with black quinoua and cotija cheese getting fried up and topped with an amazing red pepper mayonnaise. Our only complaint was that there wasn't a hundred of them.
The Ginger Summers (below), named after the two loveliest Gilligan's Island ladies, is a drink almost pretty enough to forget about getting stranded. Tequila reposada, orange liqueur, ginger, and blueberry (and a mezcal wash for a light smoky finish), make for a sweet and slightly spicy summer sipper that would certainly help pass the time if lost at sea.
Already approaching our consumption limit, the green corn tamales (below) put us over the top - these picturesque corn husk packages hide a creamy, buttery mash of grits and sweet corn. Serve them with some sour cream and salsa fresca, and you might have the perfect comfort food.
Our final cocktail to sample is the Cava Guava (below). With cava, guava and lemon, it's very much like a bellini, only this one packs an extra punch - a shot of tequila blanco, which would make this very dangerous for day-drinking. As it stands, it's a rather elegant drink to end the evening with.
The perfect bow on the experience? Churro tots (below). Infused with dulche de leche and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, the bite-sized poppers are delicately crispy on the outside, warm and doughy on the inside, and taste great with the chocolate, caramel and whipped cream dipping sauces.
So, next time you walk out of work, besuited and sweaty and looking to unwind, you know where to head. Border Grill has some wonderful bites and a cocktail menu offering summer quenchers that are approachable for all audiences, and yet will challenge tastebuds with new ingredients. The expanded cocktail menu is available at the Santa Monica location as well.
*Disclosure: This was a hosted meal.