Along old Route 66 in San Bernardino, California, sits one extraordinary family kitchen. Mike Montaño is the co-owner of Mitla Café, opened by his grandmother, Doña Lucia Rodriguez, in 1937.
“I remember it almost as an extension of my grandmother’s kitchen, or my grandmother’s house,” he said. “It’s where I would see her most frequently. It was where I saw family most frequently. And to me, it was not a restaurant. It was not a business. It was just part of what made my family who they were.”
After immigrating from her native Mexico in 1928, Rodriguez opened Mitla Café to quite literally feed her family and her growing neighborhood.
General Manager Patty Oquendo (also one of her grandkids) said, “It was during the Depression, so she knew what it was like to be hungry. And she told my mother the reason that she was opening up the restaurant is because she didn’t want any of her family members to go hungry.”
Correspondent Lilia Luciano asked, “What is the place like now? Who comes in here?”
“It’s, like, generational customers, sons and daughters of people [who] used to come here.”
Customer Richard Macias told Luciano, “We come, like, every other Sunday. We come down after we get out of church.”
Luciano asked one group of guests, “What’s the tradition with having menudo on Sundays?”
“Hangover!” one lady laughed.
Enter through these old doors, and the lines that divide us disappear almost as fast as their famous chile relleno on a hot plate.
Another customer, Richard Hirst, said, “State senators, congressmen, everyone comes here.”
“It’s a place to be seen?” asked Luciano.
“It’s the place to eat!“
And Montaño said one particular customer in the 1950s got more than just the tacos to go: “The legend, as I know it, across the street was a burger stand called Bell’s Burgers, and the owner, Glen Bell, saw that my grandparents had a line to purchase tacos. At the time I think they were 25 cents each. And he wanted to understand this food item and why people liked it so much and why it was so popular. My grandparents kind of understood what he was doing, and they wanted to help him.”
And so, Glen Bell, armed with Doña Lucia’s beloved hard taco recipe, launched Taco Bell.
Luciano asked, “What does the family say about that?”
“Everyone’s been fairly philosophical,” Montaño replied. “I don’t want people to feel like they weren’t successful or that they were taken advantage of or anything like that.”
The generosity rippled beyond the treasures of the kitchen. Through the years, Mitla served as a gathering spot for community organizing, even earning its place in the history of the fight for civil rights.
Montaño said, “One of the most important stories that I know about was the meeting of different community organizations that helped to desegregate public swimming pools in San Bernardino. There were days of the week that Mexican kids, kids of Mexican descent, could not swim in the local swimming pools.”
Those meetings led to a court case and decision that desegregated all California parks and pools – a precursor for Brown v. Board of Education.
“This restaurant,” Montaño said, “was not just a place to serve food, but it was a place for people to meet, to talk, to share ideas, and to move our community forward.”
Despite Mitla’s reputation for generosity, there is one thing they won’t share: the recipe for their taco sauce. “Our most secret recipe,” said Montaño. “There are three people right now who can make it, including myself. And we try not to ride in a car together!”
For everything else, the door stays open … the tortillas are served fresh … and the welcome is warm as ever.
Montaño said, “It’s always been about having the same spirit that my grandmother instilled in this place in 1937: ‘Come to my home, share a meal, and we’ll see you next time.'”
For more info:
- Mitla Café, San Bernardino, Calif.
- Images courtesy of Mark Ocegueda and the Latino Baseball History Project
Story produced by Amol Mhatre. Editor: David Bhagat.
Check out the “Sunday Morning” 2021 Food Issue Recipe Index for menu suggestions from the chefs, cookbook authors, flood writers and restaurateurs featured on our program, as well as the writers and editors of New York Times Cooking.