A Taste of Comfort: Chef Susan Feniger’s New Mud Hen Tavern
Some may argue that in glamorous Los Angeles, healthful dining options always trump hearty comfort food. But restaurateur Susan Feniger, a "Top Chef Masters" Season 2 contender, wants it all. And with her new restaurant Mud Hen Tavern, she's delivered.
Opened last December in the same, remodeled storefront as Feniger's popular Street, the renowned chef set out to create a friendly neighborhood hangout with a medley of familiar fare, spruced up with delightfully non-traditional flavors. Her menu spans the simple hits, like a classic cheeseburger, fish and chips, beer-battered onion rings, and marguerita pizza.
But Mud Hen throws in much-welcome divergent tastes, taking full advantage of local and seasonal ingredients with some great ethnic touches. Among them are lamb meatballs with fresh mint chimchurri and yogurt sauce, pierogi with roasted beets and horseradish cream, tuna ceviche with tangerine and chipotle-and a favorite dish retained from her Street menu: Kaya toast, a Singaporean classic of toasted bread topped with coconut jam, soft fried egg and dark soy.
To strike the right casual-creative note, Feniger also has a crafty drink menu meant to complement her dishes, but fit to stand alone. This being the wildly thirsty state of California, diners will discover impressive local beer and wine lists (with a few imports). Or one can try intriguing specialty cocktails made of small-batch spirits with ingredients from angostura and chili powder, to fig-infused bourbon and walnut bitters.
"People want a great bar," Feniger says of L.A.'s libation trends. "They want knowledgeable bartenders, they want to watch the ingredients going into drinks, they want to see interesting combinations, and exciting local draft beers being poured."
Still a Hot Tamale
Experiencing Mud Hen Tavern’s inventive flavor combinations will come as no surprise to Feniger fans. After all, before lighting up "Top Chef Masters" in 2010, she rocked the Food Network through the 1990s with her show "Too Hot Tamales," in which she starred with her longtime collaborator Mary Sue Milliken. The pair also is responsible for the popular "modern Mexican" Border Grill restaurant chain, which recently opened at LAX Airport’s Terminal 4.
Anyone who knows their style - or their "Cooking with Too Hot Tamales" cookbook - is familiar with the fresh ways they convert traditional Mexican, Brazilian, Cuban, and Spanish flavors into recipes that are "accessible, yet funky and fun," reads the pair’s website.
While Feniger continues to work with Milliken, Mud Hen is her own endeavor, and fulfills a need in central L.A. that she says lacks everyday community hubs. Hence the no-reservation, communal-table seating near the bar, in addition to main dining room and outdoor patio spaces.
"I think Mud Hen Tavern fits this great neighborhood niche that Hancock Park is craving," says Feniger. "It’s a place to walk to get a great cocktail, have a yummy burger or some interesting small bites. [You can] sit at communal tables so you can come alone, meet people, or just bring your computer and hang out while having dinner."
The restaurant’s quirky name suits its casual atmosphere. Feniger recalls the cozy comfort food of her hometown of Toledo, Ohio, home of the Mud Hens minor league baseball team. But even better, actual mud hens (a.k.a. American Coots) are birds that migrate between the Midwest and sunny southern California. Likewise, Feniger migrated to L.A. 35 years ago; much of it spent alongside her partner of 19 years, Liz Lachman.
Giving Back to the LGBT Community
True to her high-energy personality, Feniger loves to give back to her community. She sits on the board of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, where this spring she is co-chairing the Simply diVine food and wine tasting and fundraising event. Her work with the Center, she says, is a tangible way to give back to her community - in particular for the many the ways it supports young kids and seniors.
"It’s a board that that is absolutely inspirational and does incredible work," says Feniger. "It’s work that makes a huge difference for our community."
Inspiring others is one of Feniger’s driving forces, and to that end, she proudly asserts herself in an increasingly equal, but still male-dominated restaurant industry.
"For me, I just continue to push through and work around that system," she says in her optimistic way. "I love working with men and women in our field. I really do. For me it’s about working with people who are passionate and creative and hard-working. That’s what matters."