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Food

Newsletter: The best thing our restaurant critic ate this summer

Menu from Mitla Cafe, San Bernardino
The menu at Mitla Cafe in San Bernardino. The restaurant, which opened in 1937, is one of the oldest continually operating Mexican restaurants in the Inland Empire.
(Patricia Escárcega / Los Angeles Times)

Next week, Sept. 23 to be exact, marks the end of summer in the northern hemisphere.

All summer long my fellow critic, Bill Addison, has been telling us where to find the best pizza in Los Angeles; exploring the cultural subtext of kebab-centric Persian restaurant menus; and stoking serious travel envy with a terrific dispatch from his recent visit to Lebanon. If you missed any of his newsletters, go back and read them now.

While Bill was out in the world, scrupulously reporting back on his culinary wanderings, my summer more closely resembled the one described by poet Billy Collins in his poem “Consolation.” I stayed local this summer. In fact, I barely left the house. There’s a reason for that: my husband and I became parents for the first time. Our daughter, Sofía, is everything we hoped for: healthy and happy, with rounded, squishy cheeks that seem engineered to melt, or at least thaw, the coldest hearts. She is growing like a weed; time seems to speed up when there’s a baby in the house.

Looking back on this summer, I remember how time really ramped up to a fever pitch in the weeks leading up to Sofía’s birth. There were endless to-do lists — and lots of last-minute cravings. What I was craving most of all was the Mexican home cooking I grew up eating: sopita de fideo, frijoles de la olla, gorditas hand-slapped into existence over the jumpy heat of the comal. And taquitos dorados. They were a special treat around my house when I was a kid. They took my mother all afternoon to make, and disappeared within minutes of leaving the stovetop.

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I would argue that the proto-California taquito is at Mitla Cafe in San Bernardino. The restaurant, an amiable, cavernous cafe on Route 66, has a long and storied history in Southern California. Most famously, the restaurant’s taquitos dorados con carne molida are said to have inspired Taco Bell founder Glen Bell to popularize ⁠— and monetize ⁠— the hard-shelled taco.

My colleague Gustavo Arellano, one of my favorite writers and one of our finest food chroniclers, tells the story in his book “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.” (If you haven’t read “Taco USA” yet, please do. It’s an indispensable read for even the most casual Mexican food aficionado.)

Mitla Cafe is home to one hell of a taquito dorado: preternaturally crunchy, with a fried-to-order tortilla folded around a parcel of impeccably seasoned ground beef. The accoutrements include a blizzard of chopped tomatoes, iceberg lettuce and shredded cheddar cheese. The dish feels like a tidy, crisp homage to Midcentury America. It probably ought to be displayed at the Smithsonian.

A few days before my daughter was born, we drove to San Bernardino for an order of Mitla’s golden tacos. I have a modest family connection to the restaurant: Lucia Rodriguez, who founded Mitla Cafe in the 1930s, was my grandmother’s aunt. (My mother remembers Lucia fondly: “Siempre humilde y trabajadora.” Always humble, always hard-working.)

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Beyond the family ties, I feel a visceral connection to this mode of Mexican cooking. These taquitos tell a fascinating story about the way cultures come together in curious and pragmatic ways. These taquitos, like my mother, traveled northward up from Tepatitlán de Morelos, Jalisco, and put down roots in California. These taquitos are Mexican, but they are also Californian. They were arguably ahead of their time, foretelling the mashup of cultures that makes Los Angeles one of the most dynamic places to live and eat in the world. And they are delicious.

I’m convinced that the most satisfying meals are those that tap into the well of personal memory. Meals that seem to reach back in time to scratch a nagging, primordial itch. This was one of those meals, so wholly pleasing that I forgot for a moment about the to-do lists and the not-trivial fact that I would be checking into a hospital in a few days to have a baby. My lunch at Mitla was one of the best things I ate all summer. I can’t wait to share these taquitos with my daughter, so that she too becomes a part of their story.

On that note, I’d love to hear about the outstanding meals you enjoyed this summer. Tell me about it at patricia.escarcega@latimes.com.

P.S. In a few days, millions of Mexican and Mexican American households will celebrate el dieciseis de Septiembre — Mexican Independence Day. One way to celebrate is by paying a visit to your friendly neighborhood taco truck.

Ask the critics

I was hoping you might be able to recommend a restaurant or two for a solo diner. I’m going by myself to celebrate and I want to splurge for a fine-dining experience.

— Jan D., via email

Solo dining has always struck me as a particularly luxurious experience. There is a freedom to eating whatever you want, wherever you want, at your own pace. Of course, some restaurants do a better job than others at catering to parties of one, and solo dining often feels at odds with popular dining formats like communal seating and shareable small plates.

Somni, chefs José Andrés and Aitor Zabala’s Spanish-inspired tasting-menu restaurant inside the swanky SLS Hotel, features a curved chef’s counter with an open view of the kitchen brigade at work. The setup makes you feel more like an important spectator than a mere dinner guest. Zabala’s modernist cooking is frequently fun and delicious, with Wonka-esque conversation pieces like a pizza slice fashioned out of meringue and a crisp turbo wing laminated in teriyaki sauce. Hayato, Brandon Hayato Go’s seven-seat omakase restaurant at the Row DTLA, is another restaurant that rewards the solo dining experience. Chef Go and his team lead you through a multicourse kaiseki-inspired dinner that is a pleasure to enjoy by yourself.

Sashimi from Chateau Hanare
Sashimi from Chateau Hanare, the new Japanese restaurant at the Chateau Marmont.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
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  • To mark the end of the season, I plan on combing the farmer’s market stalls this weekend for local plums to make cooking editor Genevieve Ko’s late-summer birthday plum jam. I can’t think of a better way to hold on to the ephemeral flavors of summer in California a little longer.

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