Oldest Mexican Restaurant in the Inland Empire is a National Success

When the San Bernardino County Sun News visited the Mitla Café recently, the reporter noticed several articles from The New York Times, NPR, and other national news outlets posted in their restaurant. Each article documented the culinary legacy of the oldest Mexican restaurant in the Inland Empire.
There were also photos of restaurant goers smiling and posing for the camera, clearly loving their food. Patti Oquendo, mother of co-owner Steven Oquendo, told the Sun that the photos included baseball teams sponsored by their business and went all the way back to when only black-and-white photographs could be printed. She said that their customers are what their business is all about.
“I have people come in that my mom used to wait on,” said Oquendo to the Sun. “We’re all family here, us and the customers.”
The Sun talked to a long-time customer, Lino Martinez, 68, who is one of the photographs and said he used to take long lunches at Mitla, it was so good. Martinez was eating there again and this time brought friends with him like Raphael Santana, 63.
“I can’t come back without coming (to Mitla),” he told the paper. “It’s the best Mexican food in California. After six months without it, I’m dying.”
The food at Mitla is straight-forward and relatively simple, said Patti Oquendo to the Sun. They are using the same recipes and atmosphere the restaurant had when it opened in 1937, she added.
What is most striking, perhaps, about their menu is the famous hard-shell tacos, which were a stolen concept by the owner of what became Taco Bell. Its founder Glen Bell had his business across the street from Mitla. Bell opened the first Taco Bell in 1962, said the Sun. Gustavo Arellano, writer and editor of the OC Weekly, documented the hard-shell lift in his 2012 book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.
Oquendo told the Sun that before Bell opened his new restaurants, that they were family and local lore, although “she was careful to note that she couldn’t personally verify” the theft. The Sun said she has no hard feelings, which is admirable given the empire of just-add water food he made out of Mexican food.
“We just like people to enjoy what we have,” she told the paper.
She added that the number of people coming in has fluctuated over 77 years and that this last year has been a down period.
The restaurant gets a lot of tourists who “always stop at the Wigwam Motel, then they come back here,” said Oquendo, but has mostly relied on its network and community to be successful. They have hosted election-night celebrations by political opponents, for activists, and council people who represent that region of San Bernardino, added the Sun.
The Oquendo family shows no signs of stopping. They told the paper that they plan to keep reuniting people for a long time to come.
“They say a lot of family businesses fail after three generations, but we’re at four,” she said. “And my grandson, he’s five, and he comes in to color and watch people. I think he’s getting ready to be the next owner.”

The famous Mitla Cafe, the oldest Mexican restaurant in the Inland Empire, on Vernon – Photo by Dusty Track

The famous Mitla Cafe, the oldest Mexican restaurant in the Inland Empire, on Vernon – Photo by Dusty Track

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