Route 66 & The Birth of Taco Bell

Continuing on Route 66 after leaving the Bottle Tree Ranch, it wasn't long before we started hitting the seemingly never-ending sprawl of the Los Angeles area. We were close to the end of our trip now, but there would be a lot of traffic and congestion and hordes of people to navigate through before walking on the sands of Santa Monica Beach and wading in the Pacific Ocean. There was one more stop I wanted to make before Santa Monica though - a little restaurant in San Bernardino named The Mitla CafĂ©.

In 1940, two brothers, Mac and Dick McDonald, opened a small eatery called McDonalds Bar-B-Que in San Bernardino. In addition to bar-b-que, they sold hamburgers. Eight years later, they were selling more hamburgers than plates of bar-b-que so they decided to revamp their restaurant and feature hamburgers as the main menu item. Since they would no longer be serving bar-b-que, they renamed their business to simply McDonalds. In 1954, milk shake mixer salesman Ray Croc came calling and was mightily impressed with the efficiency of the system the McDonalds brothers had designed.  He bought the business a year later, began franchising it, and the McDonalds chain of fast food restaurants was born.

The Mitla Cafe - 602 N. Mt. Vernon Ave., San Bernardino, CA.
Glen Bell, Jr. was born in 1923 and honorably served as a Marine in World War II. After being discharged in 1946, he settled in San Bernardino and in 1948 opened a hot dog stand he named Bell's Drive-In. In 1950, he sold his hot dog stand and opened another stand selling hot dogs and hamburgers - Bell's Hot Dogs and Hamburgers. His new place of business was in the West Side barrio of San Bernardino directly across the street from The Mitla Cafe, a Mexican restaurant in business since 1937. 

The main item the Mitla Cafe was and is still famous for are their hard-shell taco's. Bell fell in love with them. After eating the tacos, he would go back to his place where he tried to figure out how to make them the way they were made at the Mitla Cafe. Try as he might though, the right combination of herbs and spices eluded him. Finally, in desperation, he began asking the owners of Mitla to teach him their secret.

A short time later, Bell began selling tacos through a side window of his business. The tacos proved so popular that between 1954 and 1955, he opened 3 Taco Tias stands. He took on a business partner, sold the 3 Taco Tias stands and opened 4 El Tacos stands in Long Beach.

By 1962, the chain of McDonalds was proving to be very popular and they were opening up all over the place.  With McDonalds' continued growth right there at his back door, Bell decided they were too much competition and sold his hamburger place. He then sold his share of the 4 El Tacos to his partner and focused exclusively on selling tacos with his new place - Taco Bell. He franchised his business in 1964 and eventually sold 868 Taco Bells to PepsiCo in 1978 for $125 million. Today, the company is based in Irvine, California and has almost 7,000 locations which sell more than 2 billion tacos each year.

Home of the "Mother Taco" which launched the birth of
billions of tacos!
It was the Mitla Cafe I wanted to see, the place whose tacos launched billions of tacos; the Mother Taco so to speak. Of those billions, Youngest-daughter and I have had our fair share. At least one Friday night each month, our family has the same conversation - "What do you want to eat tonight?" "Oh, I don't really care." "It's been a long week. I don't feel like cooking." "OK, how about we order pizza?" "Nah, not tonight. How about Sonic?" "Nah, I don't think so. How about Taco Bell?" "Yeah, that sounds good. It's your turn to go get it." "No it's not; I went last time!" If it hadn't been for the Mitla Cafe introducing Glen Bell to tacos, that same conversation might not take place in thousands of households all over America every week.

Unfortunately, our timing was not good and we arrived a little before the Mitla Cafe opened. The area is not exactly the safest of places - bars on windows and doors of every business in the neighborhood is usually a pretty fair indication. The Mitla Cafe had its own bars and heavy linked chains across the front door and side entrance securing the premises from evil-doers.  I didn't feel nervous or particularly unsafe while walking around, but didn't feel real comfortable hanging around for very long waiting for the Cafe to open. It was most likely an over-abundance of caution, but we soon left the neighborhood and headed toward the end of the road at the Santa Monica Pier. We didn't get to eat a Mitla taco or two, but I'm sure we'll be stopping at least once at a Taco Bell on our journey back home. It'll have to do.

Go to the first Route 66 entry here.
Or go to the first entry of each state: