Saturday, September 19, 2009

Mitla Cafe - Mexican Food

Recently my brother-in-law, Dave Kenison, pointed out an interesting website at The purpose of the website is to find "great regional meals along highways, in small towns and in city neighborhoods. It is non-franchised, sleeves-up food made by cooks, bakers, pitmasters, and sandwich-makers who are America's culinary folk artists. Roadfood is almost always informal and inexpensive; and the best Roadfood restaurants are colorful places enjoyed by locals (and savvy travelers) for their character as well as their menu." I was intrigued as these are the kinds of restaurants I really like.

I did a search on that site for restaurants near my home in Redlands and the closest restaurant listed was Mitla Cafe in San Bernardino, California, one of my favorite Mexican food restaurants. When my office was in San Bernardino I sometimes went to Mitla's as much as once a week. Now that we are in Redlands I go much less often. But I was inspired to go after seeing it on the Roadfood website. Mitla's is located at 602 North Mount Vernon Avenue in San Bernardino.

I have a number of Mexican food restaurants I frequent and each has their own distinctive salsa. I also find that I almost always order the same thing at each restaurant as there is a particular dish that I absolutely love. The Mitla salsa tends to be rather watery and not particularly hot - but there is something quite wonderful about it. My favorite dish at Mitla's is two tostadas and beans (the menu lists rice, but I always substitute the beans for the rice).

The Roadside review mentioned the salsa and chips and also recommended the carne asada. I don't believe I'd ever had carne asada there so I decided to try it. I ordered Irene's Special which comes with a small salad, guacamole, an enchilada, refried beans and carne asada. Then I substituted a tostada for the enchilada as I can't go there without having a tostada. Below is the salad. It is simple, with a maynnaise dressing, but one I quite enjoy.

The plate is loaded.

First, I focused on the tostada, my favorite. I put on a liberal dose of the salsa that is on each table, which is different from the salsa they bring to the table (see the bottle below, to the right, with the red cap). This salsa is much thicker and much hotter. Then I spread on another liberal dose of the salsa that is brought to the table (see the bowl, below, to the left) which is milder and thinner. I pretty much smother the thing with salsa. Then I absolutely enjoy it.

The carne asada was heavily covered in cheese and was quite thin. It was okay, but I did not love it and I would probably not order it again. However, I loved the remaining beans and quacamole, also smothered in a healthy dosa of the milder, watery salsa.

It was a wonderful lunch and rekindled my love for their tostadas. It had been much too long since I'd been there before.

Updated: October 17, 2013

I've been reading the book by Gustavo Arellano called Taco USA. On page 68, into page 69, he calls the corner of Sixth Street and Mount Vernon in San Bernardino the "Garden of Gethsemane for the American taco industry." That is because Glen Bell of Taco Bell fame had his first restaurant on one corner, and the restaurant he copied his taco from, Mitla, is on the opposite corner. Given that, wouldn't a more appropriate description be the Garden of Eden, as it is the birth, not the death of the taco? Anyway, Gustavo describes the Mitla taco as "hard-shelled tacos, fried upon order, bursting with ground meat, hiding under a blizzard of shredded cheese." The New York Times reporter Julia Moskin visited Mitla with Arellano and did an article titled "How the Taco Gained in Translation" which was published on April 30, 2012. She referred to San Bernardino as "the fertile crescent for American fast food" as the first McDonald's is also located there. She notes, as does Arrelano, that Mitla is the oldest Mexican restaurant in the Inland Empire of California, open since 1937. She called the Mitla tacos, "tacos dorados con carne molida, 'golden' tortillas fried to order and folded around a spicy compressed wedge of ground beef, blanketed with iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes and shredded Cheddar."

Reading the book I've had amazing Mexican food cravings. Reading specifically about Mitla, I had to go and try a taco, as I'd never had one there before. So Judy and I went to lunch. I ordered a combination plate with a taco, tostada and enchilada. Judy got a combination plate with a taco, enchilada and relleno.
taco, tostada and enchilada
relleno, enchilada and taco
I am not a big taco fan, but I have to say that Mitla's taco is substantially better than Glen Bell's Bell Taco taco, or any other fast food taco I've had. The Mitla taco shell is freshly fried and so it stays together when you bite it, unlike most fast food taco shells that tend to fracture when you take a bite. The beef is melded together in a long glob of meat lining the crease in the taco and it doesn't spill out in pieces like a Taco Bell taco with ground beef. As described, it does have lots of lettuce and shredded Cheddar. It was good as far as tacos go, but does not compare to the tostada which is the king for me at Mitla. Judy extolled the virtues of the relleno, and Mitla does do a great relleno: very large, full of lots of nice white cheese, and plumply breaded. The enchiladas are also good as far as that goes, I'm just not an enchilada person. It had been awhile since I'd been and it was as good as my dreams make it out to be. I'll not let so much time lapse before I visit again.

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