Mitla Cafe, 602 N. Mount Vernon Ave. (at 6th), San Bernardino
I’d never heard of the Mitla Cafe until Gustavo Arellano dined there with the New York Times in 2012 to talk about his book “Taco USA,” but it seemed very similar to the place to which I subsequently introduced Arellano, Ramon’s Cactus Patch in Ontario. Both were family operations launched in 1937, serving Cal-Mex food, although Mitla has the distinction that its cooks taught Glen Bell how to make hardshell tacos, a skill he eventually parlayed into Taco Bell.
Mitla also has the distinction of remaining in business; Ramon’s closed in 2013, shortly before its founder, Ramon Sanchez, died. Descendants of founders Vicente and Lucia Montano still operate Mitla, which is now the oldest Mexican restaurant in the Inland Empire, and among the oldest in Southern California.
Rarely do I head east, but in July I had to go to Redlands, and on my way back I eschewed eateries in that burg to go to Mitla. It’s pretty much equidistant from the 210 and 10 freeways, but only blocks from the 215, in the West Side barrio.
Mitla occupies what appears to be its original building and once inside, past the glass bricks in the entry, you’ll take in the front room with its counter, swivel seats and vintage Mitla calendars, and feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
That first visit, I ate in the dining room and got the No. 6 dinner ($8.75), with a taco, enchilada and chile relleno, a kind of sampler platter. “Have you ever been here before? Everything on the menu is simply delicious,” the server said. “But, the one everybody likes is the No. 6.”
The enchilada and chile relleno were covered in a meat sauce that was reminiscent of Ramon’s, a good sign. Those two items were good, but for me the taco was the standout, and I wished I had more. It was very similar to Ramon’s: fried with a ground beef patty, plus shreds of lettuce, diced tomatoes and yellow cheese.
“Now you’re part of the family,” the server declared. How could I not like this place? (And I had not introduced myself. He was just being friendly to a stranger.)
On Tuesday I had to be in San Bernardino for work reasons and took that as an opportunity to go back to Mitla — and order more tacos. This time I sat at the counter and got the three-taco combination, ground rather than shredded beef ($7.25), and got to marvel at them anew.
To be clear, there is nothing cutting edge about this food, and the menu even has a section I believe was called “American Tastes,” with hamburgers and hot dogs. Mitla is almost a classic coffee shop, only a Mexican-American version, where you can get fries with your huevos rancheros. My point is, you could have superior tacos and burritos at many other places, possibly even at the two Mexican restaurants on other corners of the same intersection.
But as an admirer of Ramon’s and all it stood for, Mitla Cafe fills that void for me, and might for you as well: food, ambience, family, tradition, history.
Heck, there are even two cactus gardens outside.
(Incidentally, it would be possible to take Metrolink to Mitla, as the San Bernardino station is visible from the restaurant. It’s probably a half-mile walk. After a meal, though, I’m not sure you could find anything else to do.)