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.
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.”