Top

dining

Stories

 

Mitla Cafe Is the Restaurant That Birthed Taco Bell

[Hole In the Wall] This San Bernardino landmarks deserves a pilgrimage from all lovers of Mexican food

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Taco Bell, the Irvine-based giant that fundamentally changed how Americans consume Mexican food. But 2012 also marks the 75th anniversary of Mitla Cafe, a diner off Historic Route 66 in San Bernardino that's the oldest Mexican restaurant in the Inland Empire and one of the oldest Mexican restaurants in Southern California, period. It serves Cal-Mex at its best, the type of place that doesn't serve aguas frescas, whose platters are buried in cheese, then drowned in meat gravy, where everyone is Chicano and speaks English and the television is tuned to basketball and soccer while Vicente Fernandez roars on the jukebox, followed by New Wave classics. It's a long drive for Orange Countians, even with no traffic—an hour, if you're lucky. Yet everyone should make at least one pilgrimage to Mitla in his or her life, for it's where Taco Bell founder Glenn Bell discovered the taco he'd subsequently rip off and turn into a multibillion-dollar empire.

The story—never revealed before my forthcoming book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (out April 10!)—is as follows: Bell wanted to sell tacos but didn't know how to make them. He opened Bell's Hamburgers and Hot Dogs in San Bernardino's West Side barrio in 1950, across the street from Mitla Cafe, which even then was famous for its hard-shell tacos. The wily gabacho would eat the tacos and go back to his kitchen to try to decipher the crispy mystery; when that didn't work, he asked the owners to teach him how to make them. Bell sold his first taco in December 1951, and an empire was on its way, with the first Taco Bell opening in Downey in 1962.

This narrative appeared in Bell's self-published biography, Taco Titan: The Glen Bell Story, but conveniently forgotten was Mitla's name. It was only through meticulous research that I was able to find the café, still as popular as ever and still selling those tacos. Those tacos! Each is fried to order; filled with shredded beef or a ground beef-and-mashed potato combo; then topped with lettuce, tomatoes and a blizzard of yellow cheese. Bell felt these tacos were "delicious but dripped melted fat," but what did he know about Mexican food other than it was an opportunity to make millions? Mitla's tacos redeem the hard-shell genre of the foodstuff: ethereal, shiny shell redolent of fresh masa enlivened by the sharp Cheddar, the refreshing lettuce, the creamy ground beef—living, breathing, delicious history.

Details

Mitla Cafe, 602 N. Mount Vernon Ave., San Bernardino, (909) 888-0460.

The owners of Mitla don't begrudge Bell for appropriating their tacos—after all, the café is still going strong after 75 years. But it's nice to at least make the history books—so pay your respects to the ur-taco, and go heavy on the spicy, relishy salsa.

This column appeared in print as "The Birthplace of Taco Bell."

 
My Voice Nation Help
9 comments
NG Coot
NG Coot

Another muy bueno crispy shell ground beef taco in the OC is La Chiquita Restaurant in the Logan Barrio Santa Ana. I am celebrating 50 years of La Chiquita's fabulous tacos for me. According to Joe the original owner and Sammy the current owner - the secret ingredient is "Love."

http://lachiquitamexicanfood.c...

Herb Toker
Herb Toker

Cool article - I'll have to check out Mitla when I'm in the area. Let's not totally rip Bell for being more of a savvy businessman than the Mitla owners and knowing how to better market a product and expand... (I passionately hate Taco Bell, BTW - although it was a lot better when I was in high school ('91-'95) before Yum brands took over). I agree with you though, Bell should have at least mentioned Mitla as his inspiration, or at least that they taught him the recipe.) Although you do give credit to Bell for bringing Mex cuisine to the masses. So - do you like or hate Bell? Or do I have to read your book to determine that? Anyhow - keep up the good articles - I'd much prefer to read The Weekly than do real work, hahaha. BTW - the wifey and I may eat Mexican tonight... at El Cholo in Irvine, since we live so close. Does that make you cringe? I acknowledge that it's a joke that the Register named it the best in OC a year or two ago. But shit - good Mex/American comfort so close... And hey - who serves the best Albondigas in the OC? Sorry for the long message, but keep up the good work - I'll buy your book!

RystynsG
RystynsG

Mitla's Cafe is a treasure. Not only are their tacos yummy (ground beef are the best) the chili rellenos and the huevos rancheros are spectacular. Our family has been patronizing Mitla's for four generations & crave the food on a regular basis.

El Guapo
El Guapo

How did he steal it if they SHOWED him how to make them?

Christian Z.
Christian Z.

Now I have to go and get pictures. Did Glen Bell's early tacos closely approximate Mitla Cafe's?

BAMSRM
BAMSRM

I love eating at Mitlas... I can personally say as can our family there is no way, no how that Taco Bell tacos taste anything near our Beloved Mitla's.... Taco smells tacos meat it's gross...... So the trip you make for Mitla's will be well worth it.

gustavoarellano
gustavoarellano

If you're going to El Cholo, at least go to the original one! As for albóndigas...keep reading the Weekly. Gracias for the kind words!

Alfiem66
Alfiem66

MITLA CAFE note Mitla is not in possessive form.

Contrary to many people's belief there is no one named Mitla and no Mr. Mitla

 
Loading...