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