San Bernardino’s Mitla Cafe awarded national grant for repairs, paint

Mitla Cafe has anchored the corner of Sixth and Mount Vernon in San Bernardino’s barrio for 86 years. And like any anchor, it’s a bit weathered.

“It’s got its nicks, its bruises,” co-owner Michael Montaño admits with a chuckle. We leave our places at the counter Friday morning for a quick look outside, where he points out cracks and chips on the exterior.

And I notice that the adjoining banquet hall is discolored in places. Whether the colors match or not, they’re all faded.

Montaño says the exterior is so familiar to him that he hasn’t necessarily noticed its gradual wear. It’s like gazing at yourself in the mirror, where you get used to how you look, the 46-year-old reflects wryly, and then, with a shock, “one day, you notice you’ve gone gray.”

Now, the famed restaurant is about to get some Grecian Formula.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is giving Mitla and 24 other historic restaurants around the nation a boost to make exterior repairs.

The restaurants will get $40,000 each via an American Express-funded program named Backing Historic Small Restaurants, launched in 2021 to help legacy businesses survive the pandemic.

My first thought was that $40,000 is small potatoes – possibly fried with peppers and onions – until thinking better of it. If you’re a small business, $40,000 is a modest windfall.

Repairing a building or a sign is usually far down the list for a business that’s focused on payroll, competition and other day-to-day concerns. That’s according to Katherine Malone-France, the National Trust’s chief preservation officer.

“Often the margins for these businesses are so small, and they have so many other challenges,” Malone-France tells me by phone, “that they don’t have the funds to set aside for these buildings. But often these buildings are landmarks.”

Mitla Cafe has been serving home-style Mexican food on San Bernardino's Westside since 1937. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Mitla Cafe has been serving home-style Mexican food on San Bernardino’s Westside since 1937. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

Qualifying restaurants are in an older building, contribute to their neighborhood’s identity and to the nation’s culinary heritage, and have a compelling narrative or cultural significance, according to the grant criteria.

Mitla does all of that.

Established in 1937, Mitla is unusual in having been started by a woman – Lucia Rodriguez, who was Montaño’s grandmother – in an era when women rarely owned their own businesses. And on visits to the Inland Empire, Cesar Chavez ate there more than once.

And famously, or maybe notoriously, the man who started Taco Bell began with a walk-up restaurant named Bell’s Burgers across from Mitla. Glen Bell became fascinated by Mitla’s tacos, was allowed to watch how they were made and adapted the recipe.

“Mitla is such a powerful illustration of a business that can be so rooted in its community, but also connected to a broader story,” Malone-France says.

I don’t qualify as a regular, but I’ve eaten at Mitla multiple times, most recently for dinner on Wednesday. I was ordering a carne asada burrito when server Patricia Martinez offered a tip: Get the chile verde burrito with cheese and sauce instead. Fine by me.

“This is the best burrito in the world. Enjoy,” Martinez said as she laid the plate in front of me. “This is an old-style Mexican burrito. I make them for 85 years.”

“You, personally?” I teased her. She laughed.

It may not have been the best burrito in the world, but it was satisfying. Also, it was so large that I took home half. Every home should have half a burrito on hand for emergencies.

Mitla Cafe co-owner Michael Montano chats with Patricia Martinez, who's been a server for 38 years. The restaurant's long history is reflected in its decor, which includes posters, menus, photos and calendar art. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Mitla Cafe co-owner Michael Montano chats with Patricia Martinez, who’s been a server for 38 years. The restaurant’s long history is reflected in its decor, which includes posters, menus, photos and calendar art. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

As Montaño and I talk Friday morning at the counter with its swivel seats, Martinez drifts near, looks at my face and remembers me. With two visits in under 48 hours, have I briefly qualified as a regular?

I ask Montaño: Who is the longest employee? It’s Martinez at 38 years. (I knew it couldn’t be 85 years.) All three of her sons are Mitla servers, too.

The pandemic may have been the toughest period in Mitla’s history, Montaño says, because he and co-owner Steven Oquendo believed it was important to keep paying the core staff while the restaurant was closed or doing take-out only.

Business is better, with Friday hours recently extended, and with Mother’s Day and, soon, Father’s Day brunches back for the first time in five years. But Mitla is still on a reduced schedule, five days a week rather than the previous six.

After a tip from a customer who is on the board of the California Historic Route 66 Association, Montaño applied for the National Trust restaurant grant in March. He learned two weeks ago that Mitla had won.

Of the winners, “we’re one of four restaurants on Route 66 and one of only two in California,” Montaño says proudly. The other is San Francisco’s Far East Cafe.

The majority of the $40,000 must be spent on the exterior, with the rest available for operating expenses or other assistance.

As I arrive on Friday, two contractors are evaluating the tan-and-beige building and two more are due. They would give advice on what’s needed and what’s possible, with an eye toward making the dollars stretch as far as possible. A pressure wash and fresh paint are priorities.

Inspiration may come from two other corners of the intersection. On the southwest, Amapola Rico Taco has a vibrant mural. (The building is the former Bell’s Burgers, by the way.) On the southeast, the utility box is newly enlivened with a portrait of Frida Kahlo that adds a splash of color to an otherwise bare lot.

“It’s small things that make a difference,” Montaño muses.

The improvements should be complete by year’s end, if not earlier.

“We want it to shine more than it does now,” Montaño says of the look from the street. “When you come in, it’s the food, the camaraderie. We want the outside to match the inside.”


At Wednesday’s San Bernardino City Council meeting, 32 people turned in slips for public comment. One was a man dressed in white who was there to preach. “God’s going to speak to you tonight,” the man promised. Just like everyone else, God got three minutes.

David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, fairly. Email, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.

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