Milpa Grille Revives An Ancient Mesoamerican Medley

At Milpa Grille, a serving of corn, squash, and beans is more than a trio of colorful vegetables. It’s a mix of core crops with a shared legacy of cultivation that goes back millennia, now taking root in Boyle Heights as core ingredients for the retrospective eatery.

“We’re bringing back Mesoamerican, pre-Columbian staple crops,” said Deysi Serrano, who runs Milpa Grille alongside Dan Morales and Dan Torres. From their combined backgrounds working with restaurants, the co-owners envisioned creating a healthy, affordable option for their neighborhood while honoring a history and heritage that predates Mexican cuisine.

Milpa Grille - Milpa Bowl - Foodzooka Splat
photo: Foodzooka (Milpa Bowl)

The menu at Milpa Grille is inspired by the foods on which ancient civilizations thrived in Mexico and Central America long before rice and wheat were introduced. While the name “milpa” often refers to corn fields, it comes from a farming practice of planting a mix of mutually beneficial crops together on the same field. Maize, beans, and squash have long been collectively revered and symbolized as “the three sisters” because they grow together in harmony as milpa crops and offer a balanced source of nutrition when combined.

You’ll find this combination featured in the Milpa Bowl, a signature dish that includes a grilled mix of corn, three squashes (yellow squash, zucchini, and Mexican calabaza), black beans, carrots, and bell peppers. On its own, the medley is a nutritional powerhouse of vitamins, antioxidants, and protein, but you can add shredded pork or grilled chicken for a meatier meal. A garnishing of pickled onions and nachos plus splashes of salsa add a spike of flavor and texture.

“You eat, it’s good enough, you’re going to feel satisfied. It’s fresh, and you won’t be sluggish afterwards,” said Deysi. “It could be because we don’t have rice, but I also think it’s because it’s very light and nutritious.”  

Milpa Grille - Milpa Salad - Foodzooka Splat
photo: Foodzooka (Milpa Salad)

For a leafy veggie variety, the Milpa Salad loads grilled corn and black beans on a bed of mixed greens, along with nopales (cactus), pico de gallo, avocado, cotija cheese, and the option to add chicken or pork. The Milpa Soup is another comforting variation with chunks of grilled corn, squash, and cabbage immersed in a hearty red base made from grilled tomatoes.

“We’re vegan friendly, vegetarian friendly, and if you want meat, then great, we have that too,” said Deysi.

True to Milpa Grille’s name, nearly all the fixings on the menu meet the grill—from the corn to the squash, from the tomatoes to the tomatillos, and certainly the chicken. Each one earns sear marks with caramelized and charred colors, releasing smoky flavors that permeate the dishes, even the housemade salsas.

Milpa Grille - Grilled Corn and vegetables - Foodzooka Splat
photo: Foodzooka

If you’re craving more familiar Mexican fare, you can get your milpa ingredients and other options wrapped in corn tortillas in the form of taquitos, street tacos, and enchiladas. The top-selling taquito choice is generously filled with soft and savory seasoned potatoes, which contrasts the crunch of the fried tortilla and fresh shredded cabbage on top. The enchiladas with grilled squash and bell peppers are another flavorful standout, which is often customized to add corn for a burst of sweetness.

“They’re really catered to what you want to put in them,” Deysi noted. Each meal comes with your choice of two sides, including grilled corn or veggies, black beans, or salad to ensure you can get the full milpa experience.

“We have a small menu. We want to make sure it’s straight to the point, yet really good, whatever you choose,” said Deysi.  

Milpa Grille - Potato Taquitos - Foodzooka Splat
photo: Foodzooka (Potato Taquitos)

If you weren’t acquainted with milpa agriculture before visiting Milpa Grille, it quickly becomes clear that maize plays a central role. Corn commands the menu not only mixed into the milpa dishes, but also as the main feature of many selections: grilled corn on the cob (Elote), grilled corn salad (Esquite), corn soup (Creme de Elote), cornbread (Pan de Elote), and even a drink made with fresh corn (Atole de Elote). Milpa Grille also makes their own “Maya Mix” version of elote mayonnaise with secret spices to enhance almost any dish.

The Creme de Elote soup is a particular favorite as a side dish or a snack. Grilled corn and carrots help thicken the soup while chile pasilla, cilantro, and celery lend it a vibrant green color, accented with a white zigzag of sour cream drizzled on top. Its soothing creaminess and fresh corn flavor make it unique and memorable enough that it sees constant customer demand even through the summer.

Milpa Grille - Crema De Elote - Foodzooka Splat
photo: Foodzooka (Crema De Elote)

“We’re always listening to our customers,” Deysi said. “This menu really caters to them and the community to see what they want us to change.”

On the sweeter side, Coconut Flan is on the dessert list in addition to the Pan de Elote. The housemade beverages complete the menu, including pineapple-ginger-spinach and watermelon-strawberry agua frescas. To perk you up, the Cafe de Olla is a lightly sweetened coffee with cinnamon, served hot or iced. And you can enjoy your cold drink with a modern, eco-friendly pasta straw, perhaps the only wheat-based item you’ll find in the restaurant.

Milpa Grille - Pineapple Ginger Spinach Agua Fresca
photo: Foodzooka (Pineapple Ginger Spinach Agua Fresca)

The atmosphere inside Milpa Grille feels modern and homey, surrounded in wood patterns of varying shades, with ample references to its milpa theme. The image of corn is not only in the restaurant logo, but also in the figures of Mayan or Aztec maize gods gracing the counter, and pictured on the walls along with other milpa crops. As you enter, the large Milpa Grille logo on the door greets you with the brazenly amusing claim, “Est. 5000 BC,” an estimation of when the earliest crops were domesticated.

“It’s really about a reminder. When you step into the restaurant you know that this is what our ancestors ate,” said Deysi. “You taste history.”

Milpa Grille - Boyle Heights - Foodzooka Splat
photo: Foodzooka