Taco Bell Was ‘Inspired’ by a Mexican Immigrant’s Restaurant That Still Exists Today
As explained by the company on their website, Taco Bell’s founder Glen Bell was “inspired by friends and neighbors at Mitla Cafe” to make his own restaurant in 1951. Mitla Cafe, an iconic San Bernardino, California Mexican restaurant founded in 1937, was reportedly one of Bell’s most-frequented places to eat at.
Mitla Cafe’s crisp tacos dorados struck Bell so much, that he eventually made his “own version of the Crunchy Taco.” And yes, by “own version,” some would say he “stole” it. Mitla Cafe, though? They’re not too fazed about it.
Current owner Irene Montaño, a descendant of Mitla Cafe’s founders, Lucia Rodriguez and then-husband Vicente Montaño, spoke about the idea of being “ripped-off.” Talking about Bell, she told OC Weekly, “Good for him!”
In fact, she explained how Taco Bell never harmed Mitla Cafe’s massive, nearly century-long success. Why? “Our tacos were better.”
Mexican immigrants founded Mitla Cafe in 1937 alongside Route 66
As per Mitla Cafe’s website, Mexican founders Lucia Rodriguez and then-husband Vicente Montaño founded the San Bernardino restaurant as a “simple lunch counter” on Route 66.
However, it soon became wildly popular, pushed by their legendary fried tacos dorados. In fact, according to BBC, Rodriguez started making these hard-shell tacos as an ode to her childhood in Jalisco, Mexico. Her family would eat similar fried tortillas with mashed potatoes. However, the founder replaced the potatoes with ingredients like cheddar cheese and ground beef.
After Montaño passed away, Rodriguez and her second husband, Salvador Rodriguez, put their hearts and souls into the restaurant. So much so it attracted icons like activist and labor leader Cesar Chavez.
As per Eater, a typical lunch at Mitla Cafe in the mid-20th century meant seeing famous leaders like Chavez, the Mexican Chamber of Commerce and Mexican-American baseball stars. Mitla Cafe became a meeting place for the Mexican community in San Bernardino, a fact that still holds true today.
Michael Montaño, the founders’ grandson, explained, “To see how special Mitla Cafe is, you really have to just be here.”
“We have people coming here for decades,” he described. “These two gentlemen over here are brothers; their mom is one of our cooks. So, they’ve grown up here. We have a connection to the community, where there are two or three generations coming in together.”
And while Mitla Cafe was and is a special place for “people from all walks of life,” one of those people turned out to be Glen Bell. And yes, he really loved those famous tacos dorados… so much so, he reportedly ate them every night to try and recreate them.
Legend says that Bell learned about making hard-shell tacos in the restaurant’s kitchen
Interestingly, Taco Bell kept pretty quiet about being “inspired” by Mitla Café. That is, until writer Gustavo Arellano read a biography about Glen Bell and realized the connection.
In the biography titled “Taco Titan,” Bell talked about selling hamburgers in his own stand across the street from a Mexican restaurant.
In the interview, the founder even gave the San Bernardino intersection of the restaurant. One drive later, Arellano realized Bell was talking about Mitla Cafe.
At the time, Arellano spoke to the daughter-in-law of the original founders, who told him her memories of Bell. “I remember him, this white guy used to come in late at night, ask lots of questions about how we made tacos, and then leave.” Hm… “inspired” you say? Interesting.
In fact, according to Eater, Bell actually became friends with Mitla Cafe’s staff and ended up in their kitchen. That is reportedly where he learned how to make their signature tacos dorados… and his eventual, billion-dollar idea: the “crunchy taco.”
Quickly, Bell added tacos to his hamburger stand’s menu, and eventually opened up his very first “Taco Bell” restaurant.
Today, many assert that Bell copying Mitla Cafe’s tacos is the epitome of cultural appropriation— which he then made billions of dollars from.
As St. John’s University professor, Steven Alvarez, explained to BBC, “What happened here is a white guy seeing opportunities to market Mexican food to a ‘mainstream’ audience for the love of profit, and not the love of Mexican people.” No lies detected.
Still, the family who runs Mitla Cafe sees things a little bit differently. Current owner Mike Montaño told CBS, “I don’t want people to feel like [my family wasn’t] successful or that they were taken advantage of or anything like that.”
The family’s focus is all on keeping the business running for another 86 years. And to continue serving delicious tacos to their community, of course.
“It’s always been about having the same spirit that my grandmother instilled in this place in 1937,” Montaño said.
“Come to my home, share a meal, and we’ll see you next time.”