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Noam Bleiweiss

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Taco Bell Wouldn't Exist Without San Bernardino's Mitla Cafe

Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

Longstanding Mitla Cafe has been left out of fast food history.

By just about any standard, 1937 was a tough year for America. Battered by the Great Depression and already fearful of the impending Second World War, it was a time of unease for most middle class families. And uncertainty loves company.

So in small, dusty, still heavily segregated Route 66 towns like San Bernardino, people felt the need to gather. On the west side of the city, where the Mexican families were allowed to live, that meeting point became Mitla Cafe on Mount Vernon Avenue.

1937 is the year that Lucia Rodriguez first threw open the front door, serving cheesy Mexican comfort food versions of dishes like chile rellenos alongside more nuanced daily specials. People came early and often, sidling into one of the hand-sewn brown leather coffee counter seats and chatting with their neighbors over a cup of coffee before moving on to start the day. Families arrived on weekends, anchored by the friendly atmosphere and kid-friendly menu.

People came early and often, sidling into one of the hand-sewn brown leather coffee counter seats

Important people in the Mexican community started showing up, too. Cesar Chavez was a known regular who would frequent Mitla when he could. Salvador Rodriguez, husband to Lucia, pulled in businessmen and politicians, warming them with a hot meal and plenty of talk. Burdened by their own lack of access, those same local heavyweights would go on to form the Mexican Chamber of Commerce. They'd meet at Mitla, taking up booths and tables to discuss the next great leap forward for the city.

Mexican-American baseball teams finished their games with a meal at Mitla. Church leaders led their congregation to the dining room on Sunday afternoons. Parades, demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience stemming from the city’s growing discomfort with its own outright racism all started at Mitla, and would go on to change the landscape of the Inland Empire.

Glen Bell also came to Mitla Cafe. It's a story now widely circulated thanks to OC Weekly’s Gustavo Arellano and his book Taco USA. Bell would go on to found Taco Bell from a small standalone building in Downey (which, coincidentally, is now in serious trouble) in 1962, but earned his humble beginning in the years prior by selling hamburgers and hot dogs across the street from Mitla Cafe.

Bell, as legend holds, watched lines form for the cafe’s signature ten cent tacos dorados, a thinly fried tortilla shell lined with simple meats, shredded cheese and diced tomatoes. The entrepreneur befriended staff and family alike, working his way into the kitchen in order to decipher the secrets behind the beguiling taco that was proving so popular in what was then San Bernardino’s barrio district. Bell wanted in on the blossoming Southern California fast food trend, and he bet successfully that even non-Mexicans would bite on the concept of casual, toned down tacos.

Bell wanted in on the blossoming Southern California fast food trend

But that’s not the story that Mitla Cafe deserves. It’s not even a rare one — disenfranchised Mexican Americans were discounted, cheated and overlooked for decades before and after Glen Bell, with little in the way of retribution available to them. The story that Mitla deserves is one of vitality and enduring success. The original cafe still stands, in the same location, with a historic designation sign outside and framed photographs on the walls inside, showing generations of important Mexican American history, some lost to time and others well known. More than a simple all day eatery, Mitla still stands as the voice of a quiet revolution that helped expand Mexican food throughout the world, that brought relative peace to a neighborhood and a city that was desperate for it.

You can still get those crispy tacos, by the way, ground beef and all. They bear a striking resemblance to Taco Bell’s own concoction, just as they have for nearly 80 years. But they’re made to order at Mitla, served with a side of community, respect and history.

Mitla Cafe
602 N. Mount Vernon Ave.
San Bernardino, CA 92411

Photography by: Noam Bleiweiss

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