Mexican

A Bit of Taco Wisdom From an 80-Year-Old SoCal Cantina

by:
February 28, 2018

Mitla Café, the restaurant that launched a nation’s late-night food cravings, is a San Bernardino, California, institution. Founded in 1937, located off historic Route 66, owned continuously by the same family, it’s still serving those original, delicious, ethereally crunchy, satisfying beef tacos. Though Michael Montaño, the restaurant’s third-generation owner, declined to part with Mitla’s iconic taco recipe—“We already did that once,” he said mysteriously.

It's possible he might be referring to how, inspired by a neighborhood Mexican restaurant, a man named Glen Bell decided to sell tacos at his San Bernadino hot dog stand in 1951. He would eventually become the Bell in Taco Bell. A slew of similar taco chains followed, and tacos are now an American staple, defining our Tuesday nights, launching fleets of food trucks, and influencing Michelin–starred chefs.

I talked to Michael Montaño and gathered a few tips for making the best Cali-Mex–style tacos at home.

Be Flexible

When Montaño’s grandmother, Lucia Montaño Rodriguez, opened Mitla Café in 1937, she couldn’t find many ingredients from her native Mexico. “The origins of our taco is based on what she could get. Ground beef. Iceberg lettuce. Yellow cheese,” he says. “Pure Mexican food is more about soft corn tortillas and the filling inside. Cal-Mex is a fusion of American-style comfort food plus Mexican techniques like frying in lard.”

What's the Filling?

There are tacos al pastor, fish tacos, and even Korean tacos, but the original Cal-Mex taco is, quite simply “a cheeseburger in a different form,” says Montaño. Indeed, at Mitla Café, ground beef is formed into a sausage-shaped cylinder before being fried. The result is a juicy patty that, unlike crumbled ground beef, doesn’t fall out of the shell when you eat it. A shower of chopped iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and grated cheddar completes the cheeseburger metaphor.

Tacos going home, on a Tuesday.

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Consider Frying All of It

Montaño equates the Cal-Mex taco to the taco dorado (a taco with a hard shell). “It should be crunchy, golden, and fried.” Gustavo Arellano—taco expert and author of Taco USA, who The New York Times describes as “perhaps the greatest (and only) living scholar of Mexican-American fast food”—believes the ideal Cal-Mex taco is “crunchy, freshly fried, with a great shell and moist meat.” He fears, however, that the classic hard-shell taco is in danger. “[Fewer and fewer] restaurants are serving that type of cuisine,” he says. “The taco has now come to mean tortilla and the soft shell is dominant.”

Don’t Take It Too Seriously

Though Cal-Mex tacos have their roots in Mexican food, they’re far from authentic Mexican cuisine, and that’s okay. “Don’t equate this with traditional Mexican food,” says Montaño. According to Gustavo Arellano, who also appears on Netflix's Ugly Delicious, “Traditions are removable. There’s no such thing as authenticity,” he says. “Mexican food is always changing, always adapting with the times.”

In that spirit, here are some inauthentic tacos to take for a spin (or a good deep-fry):

Been to Mitla Cafe? Tell us all about it in the comments!

6 Comments

Smaug March 3, 2018
I often wonder about the soft/hard taco question- pretty much all we read about Mexican food is based on what goes on in restaurants and street stands; fried taco shells are a near impossibility for a street stand, and a pain for a restaurant; I suppose that theoretically they could arrange some sort of system to deep fry them in batches, but I don't know that many do. For a home cook it's not really a problem- do Mexicans fry their taco shells at home? Perhaps "60 Minutes" could look into it. I also wonder about fillings- for a restaurant, simple fillings to be complemented by an array of salsas and condiments make sense; cooking for 2 or 3 people, producing an assortment of salsas and cutting up a bunch of stuff that may or may not get used doesn't really make much sense; I generally go for a more complex filling that stands on it's own.
 
Len March 2, 2018
When I worked at Norton AFB with DAVA, we'd go there a couple of times a week for lunch. I usually go there on my birthday. The burrito with cheese sauce on it is the bomb. I love their chili rellenos also.<br />
 
Tim March 1, 2018
I used to go tbere with my family in the '70's. (Do they still have the Peggy' Special?) My parents loved the food so much, they tried starting their OWN Mecican Restaurant! I will be going back next week for the first time in 35 years. Looking forward to it!
 
Author Comment
Ann M. March 2, 2018
This is a fantastic story! I think they do still have the Peggy special. I'm excited for your visit next week! Please let us know how it goes!!!
 
AntoniaJames February 28, 2018
What a good idea, to shape into cylinders. I'm going to do that, next time we have beef tacos (tomorrow night!) ;o)
 
Author Comment
Ann M. March 1, 2018
I've started doing it too! Happy taco night!