Mitla Cafe: A San Berdoo Classic

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Posted September 24, 2008 in Eats

The black metal barrier gate lining the storefront says it all. Well, that and the seamy surroundings on this stretch of historic Route 66—a lone taco stand across the street, vacant parking lots, broken windows on abandoned buildings, and dogs digging in the dumpster. My husband even has the audacity to ask whether he’ll survive another day. I could almost picture our faces splashed on the front page or evening news as yet another victim of Southland violence. 

 

Inside, it doesn’t get any prettier—a large, square, church hall of a dining room, like one of the old cafés off the hard-bitten road. Cheap pictures of the old country line the plain white walls. The room is spottily occupied by bloated people and geriatrics. This open space, devoid of personality and atmosphere, is as endearing as the chips and salsa set before us.

 

Mitla Café is a long-standing San Bernardino institution. It was here in 1937, probably as the Packards rolled down the dusty old road in their westward travails towards the beach, and long before the area became the enclave of cholos and homies. Ownership has been kept in the family for seven decades, passing down to the son and now into the hands of the daughter-in-law. The employees are efficient, if lacking in genial correspondence with two strangers. We instantaneously stand out as not-from-around-here, strangers in a strange land. The regulars, we’re quick to see, don’t get that standoffishness. But that can be said of any truly ethnic town—from Chinatown on down the ethnic alphabet.

 

The menu reads like vintage Mexican restaurant, a tableau of assorted combos and plates (there are a few standard breakfast items and a kids menu). The draw of the lot occurs at the top of Page 3, four main boxed specials separated from the competing items below—specials by the name of Peggy, Fred, Gloria, and Irene. I ask the waiter about the significance of these names, and he informs me that they’re named after customers who liked them so much that they would order them time and time again. Encouraged by its timelessness, we settle on Gloria’s and Irene’s specials and a cup of the cocido, a Mexican beef stew.

 

We enjoy the innocent salsa with that bite to it until the cocido arrives. Cocidos are thick, meaty stews. My lone, thin cup is a high sodium-infused meaty broth chock full of carrots, zucchini, celery, onions, and green beans that smells great and tastes like abuela made it—but where’s the beef? This cup contains a few shreds and a couple of bite-size morsels of the pink flesh. Maybe this is God’s way of telling me to lose the weight. Midway through the soup, our waiter stops by to prematurely ask if we need refills on drinks, a fact driven home by our barely dented soda glasses. 

 

Our entrèes arrive, bubbling hot to the touch. Gloria’s Special consists of two chicken soft tacos served enchilada style—no rice or beans added, although none is more than plenty given the portions. The glob looks like scoops of cole-slaw dumped on top of a chicken enchilada, but the results are delicious. This is definitely better than the average taco, without that chain-style, pre-fab staleness.

 

Irene’s Special is equally impressive—equal parts cheese enchilada (at least a pound of melted cheddar in and around it), refried beans, and carne asada. Carne asada at other restaurants appears already chopped up and ready to be forked. My tender slice of beef comes armed with a steak knife for my own chopping and is topped by melted cheese and a warm, tomato salsa. It’s like eating a Mexican version of a Philly cheesesteak. 

 

The food at Mitla Café tastes different, feels different, and that’s a good thing for a 70-year-old mired in times long gone by. Now, if we can only get home before the real trouble begins.

 

Mitla Café, 602 N. Mt. Vernon Ave. (at 6th St.), San Bernardino, (909) 888-0460, www.mitlacafe.com. Open Tues.–Thurs., 9AM-2PM; Fri., 9AM-9PM; Sat.–Sun., 9AM-8PM; AE, D, MC, V

 


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