Lisa Morehouse

From politicians and celebrities to homesick Californians who make it their first stop when they return from their travels, Mitla Cafe has been a favorite spot for Cal-Mex food lovers since it opened in 1937. Through four generations of family ownership, the San Bernardino institution remains a key gathering point for civic and religious leaders to discuss the issues of the day. And the story goes that this down-home taco joint inadvertently inspired the beginnings of the Taco Bell chain restaurant empire. Correspondent Lisa Morehouse visits Mitla Cafe to learn more about its history and importance to today's Chicano community.



Left: Ralph Botello poses in his Mitla Cafe uniform during the 1940s. Latino business sponsorship was crucial for sustaining community life during an era where Mexicans were banned from city parks and pools. | Right: Women of the Mitla Cafe proudly pose next to the restaurant in server dresses that evoke the style and glamour of Mexico's famed calendar girls of the early 20th century. (Courtesy: Mark Ocegueda) | (Courtesy: Steve Oquendo)

The exterior of the Mitla Cafe today in San Bernardino, Califonia. (Photo: Lisa Morehouse)

In the 1950s, Glen Bell owned a hot dog stand across the street from the Mitla Café, and saw how popular their hard shell tacos were. "My great-grandfather Salvador brought him into the kitchen and kind of showed him how we did it. He took the concept and ran with it from there to what Taco Bell is today." (Photo: Lisa Morehouse)

Co-owner Steve Oquendo: "Our customers come here for that gut feeling, that soul feeling, that home feeling. It’s a meeting place. You can’t take that away." (Photo: Lisa Morehouse)

Historian Mark Ocegueda says, in segregated 1940s San Bernardino, business, civic and church leaders met at the Mitla Cafe and eventually sued the city and gained access to a public pool. This served as precedent for the case that would desegregate schools in California, says Ocegueda, "and that in turn served as precedent for the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954." (Photo: Lisa Morehouse)

Lisa Morehouse
Lisa Morehouse is an independent radio reporter and producer. She produces California Foodways. Her stories air on The California Report, The World, Good Food, and NPR’s Latino USA and Weekend Edition.