Long ago, there was a restaurant called Bell’s Drive-In across the street from The Mitla Cafe. Mitla Cafe’s menu inspired Bell’s to switch from burgers (sold at nearby McDonald’s) to tacos. Ultimately, Bell’s Drive-In became Taco Bell. But that’s not the reason for paying attention to this eatery that has catered to locals and hungry motorists since 1937.
Mitla Cafe is no fast-foot joint. It is a bright, comfy, sit-down restaurant where local families come for everyday meals and special occasions. The menu is old-fashioned, hot plate Mexican, as well as crisp tacos and other snacks a la carte. The staff are skilled, patient, and efficient as they weather busy lunches.
Ordering a simple taco gets you the ground beef, hard shell version. Sorry to say, the salty lump of ground beef makes for a disappointing prize. Better to specify a shredded beef taco, which is much meatier. Because the taco is fried with the meat already inside, the first bite of beef will have crisp, dark-browned fried edges. The harmony of beef, lettuce, tomatoes and salty orange cheddar has become an iconic American bite. Tables are outfitted with little syrup pourers of a burnt maroon chili sauce that tastes like a homespun version of what has become known generically as “taco sauce.” Use plenty; it brings these tacos to life.
Absolutely get some guacamole tacos. These are large-gauge taquitos brimming with shredded beef and topped with about an entire avocado’s worth of fresh, stiff guacamole dolloped in the center of the tube. Managing the guacamole distribution makes them precarious to eat.
Mitla does good wet burritos, filled only with juicy stewed meat, big enough to cover a dinner plate from end to end. Slick rancho sauce and sticky melted cheese soak the flour tortilla, which becomes even wetter from the juicy meat. The result is a tortilla that melts into the meat as you eat.
In spite of the storied history of the tacos and the generous size the burritos, Mitla’s best dishes are the hot plates. Overstuffed enchiladas come with sauce that is thinner and more vegetable-based than most. Lack of weighty roux in the sauce leaves the enchiladas tasting fresh and well-suited to a desert climate. The best out of many strong dishes are enormous chile rellenos. The chile remains intact with fresh-vegetable bite.