Mitla Cafe – San Bernardino, California - Gastro Obscura
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San Bernardino, California

Mitla Cafe

The Route 66 institution that inspired Taco Bell also served as an important headquarters for Mexican-American social movements. 

Yes, Glen Bell stole Cafe Mitla’s taco recipe in building his Taco Bell fast-food empire, and no, they did not receive credit for it. To end the story there, however, is an injustice to the cafe’s role as both a catalyst for nearly a century of Mexican-American social change and a longstanding meeting point for a marginalized community. 

The Mexican comfort-food spot that Lucia Rodriguez opened in San Bernardino in 1937 quickly blossomed into an important meeting point for Mexican families of the day. Cesar Chavez was a regular when in town, and Lucia’s husband made patrons out of a powerful group of local businessmen who would go on to form the Mexican Chamber of Commerce. Church and civic leaders met here in the 1940s to sue the city in gaining access to a public pool; the ruling in favor of the Mexican-Americans’ plea served as the precedent for the case that desegregated California public schools in 1946.  

Glen Bell was also a regular. When his hot dog and hamburger stand across the street from Mitla began losing business, he infamously cozied up to the Rodriguez family, slowly earning their trust until he’d secured the secrets of their ever-popular hard-shell taco. The Downey, CA, Taco Bell location he opened in 1962 featured Mitla’s techniques and skyrocketed both his business and the taco into national stardom. Mitla’s admirable indifference to the whole affair stands alongside their enduring commitment to home-cooked Mexican-American food as testament to the character of this Route 66 institution. 

As ever, Mitla’s tacos are their prize dishes. While they serve al pastor, fish, and Cal-Mex tacos, the shredded beef on a hard-shell is the winning choice. You’ll see how their tortilla-frying technique is famous for converting hard-shell-haters into believers. They offer red and green pozolé on weekends, though the albondigas soup is also beloved. 

The warm, flower-tiled walls are adorned with photographs of Mexican-American historical icons, friends, and regulars. While there is one of Glenn Bell attached to the oft-told story, it’s dominated by the hundreds more that make up the tight-knit Latinx community in San Bernardino who have communed in this humble cafe over the years, reshaping California from the ground up.

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