Cal-Mex mavericks Mary Sue Milliken & Susan Feniger innovate with Hispanic-style dairy

Written by: California Milk Advisory Board

Fresh and sustainable California ingredients are at the heart of the Cal-Mex innovation happening at Chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken’s restaurant, Socalo, in Santa Monica, California.

The name ‘Socalo’ perfectly mirrors the chefs’ strategy and take on Cal-Mex cuisine. It’s a play on the Spanish word ‘zocalo’ (town square) and ‘So Cal,’ reflecting the chefs’ commitment to presenting Cal-Mex food made with the best, freshest, and most sustainable California ingredients and ideas.

Since 1985, Feniger and Milliken have used a signature blend of three California Hispanic-style cheeses for chiles rellenos, quesadillas, potato rajas and more. This versatile blend combines Panela (for milky richness and soft texture), Hispanic-style Manchego (for flavor and a gooey “melt factor”), and Queso Añejo or Cotija (for a splash of salty flavor and savory depth). It’s also the secret behind their best-selling Socalo dish: Vampiro Tacos.

Socalo Vampiro Tacos

These famed tacos are created by placing a small portion of the cheese blend directly onto a hot comal and immediately covering with a fresh corn tortilla. As the cheese melts and cooks, it fuses onto the tortilla and becomes crisp and richly caramelized, similar to a cheese ‘frico.’ The tortilla is flipped to lightly brown the other side and soften the tortilla. Then the tortilla is transferred to a plate, crispy-cheese-side up, and topped with a taco filling, such as steak and shrimp or California veggies from the Santa Monica farmer’s market.

The Vampiro Tacos are featured in Real California Milk’s REAL Makers video series, which spotlights innovative chefs who are using California dairy in new and exciting ways. The video is a great example of how California – as the nation’s #1 dairy state – can help drive menu innovation.

“Having a great variety of California Hispanic-style cheeses available inspires me to incorporate cheese into dishes in new ways, and they have a luscious, consistent, and milky melting quality,” says Milliken.

California is also helping to meet the needs of chefs who are seeking ways to make their operations more sustainable with ingredients that support the welfare of the planet. California dairy farmers have been working to improve their carbon footprint for decades – 45% over the past 50 years – and are focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing reliance on solar energy, and implementing extensive water recycling programs.

“We like to support farmers who are stewards of the earth and who prioritize sustainable food systems. And both our employees and guests have come to expect we are choosing products conscientiously,” says Milliken.

Through innovating with California Hispanic-style dairy, Feniger and Milliken continue to find new and creative ways to bring sustainable, delicious and Cal-Mex inspired dishes to their customers.

For more information on California dairy products for foodservice, visit