Mitla Cafe Is The Route 66 Restaurant That Inspired Taco Bell

Some of the most iconic food brands hang their hats on secret recipes. The original formula for KFC's fried chicken is locked up in a safe and employees in the know are required to sign confidentiality pledges. For decades, Coca-Cola's secret recipe was hidden in a secure vault. McDonald's Big Mac "special sauce" was a well-guarded secret until the company posted a video that inadvertently negated its protected status. With so much mystery shrouding trade secrets in the food industry, it may come as a surprise to learn that the owners of a restaurant in San Bernardino, California, willingly shared their popular hard-shell taco recipe with the founder of Taco Bell.

It's true. The couple who founded Mitla Café in 1937 invited Taco Bell creator Glenn Bell into their inner circle and showed him how to make the tacos that became the foundation of his fast-food empire.

At the time, Bell was the proprietor of a struggling hamburger and hot dog stand located directly across the street from the thriving taco restaurant established by Salvador and Lucia Rodriguez. The young couple, originally from Jalisco, Mexico, had built a reputation as the go-to place in San Bernardino for hard-shell tacos. The house specialty was a derivation of the mashed potato-stuffed hard-shell tacos that were a Lenten season staple in Lucia's childhood home. In California, Lucia Rodriquez replaced the Lenten potato filling of her childhood with ground beef, cheddar cheese, tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce.

No hard feelings

By the time Bell opened his hamburger stand in 1948, Mitla Café had been in business for more than 10 years, expanding from a basic lunch counter to a full-service restaurant. From his perch directly across the street, Bell watched patrons line up to place orders at Mitla while bypassing his burger joint. Intrigued, he decided to check out the competition, eventually becoming a daily customer. Along the way, he befriended the staff who taught him how to make the restaurant's signature hard-shell tacos. Three years after opening the burger stand, Bell added tacos to his take-out menu, and the rest, as they say, is history. Bell expanded his taco business through a few partnerships and incarnations before opening his first Taco Bell in 1962. The original location in Downey, California, spawned its first franchise operation two years later.

More than 80 years after opening, Mitla Café is still a family-owned San Bernardino mainstay, although founder Lucia Rodriquez died in 1981. The restaurant is currently owned and operated by her grandson, Michael Montaño. And even in light of the success Bell achieved building a fast-food empire based on a recipe created by the family matriarch, Rodriquez's descendants harbor no hard feelings.

During an interview while researching his 2012 book, "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America," Michael Montaño's mother, Irene, told author Gustavo Arellano, "Good for him," before adding, "Our tacos were better."