Located on the intersection of County Roads 307 and 308, Diane’s Tortilla Burger is not exactly centrally located. It’s closest neighbors are three natural gas plants, not far from the Durango-La Plata County Airport. Despite its remote location, though, people come from miles around for the restaurant’s homemade tortillas.
The restaurant, just outside Millich’s residence, came to exist as a result of an illness – owner Diane Millich was diagnosed with schleroderma, an autoimmune disease, almost six years ago, she said.
“The T cells in the illness were pre-cancerous, so I had to get a complete stem-cell transplant, and going through chemo twice ... I was in my bedroom and I was just looking out the window and, you know, suffering and sick and the whole thing,” Millich said. “And I kept seeing all these trucks going down the road of course to the gas plants.
“I kept thinking, ‘Where are these people eating? Are they going to Ignacio? Durango? The corner store? Do they have to bring their lunch? What if they don’t bring their lunch? Are they going hungry?’”
This led directly to the birth of Millich’s business.
“I kept thinking, what if, just to get my head out of being sick, I just started cooking for them? Like, what if I did breakfast burritos?” she said. “Of course, then my husband said, ‘You have to have homemade tortillas because otherwise your burritos are going to be like everybody else’s.’”
Millich started four years ago with a tiny food truck, about the size of a horse trailer. After her first season, she was able to buy a bigger one, but she had generated enough business that it had again become too small.
Two seasons in, Millich was able to gather enough money to sell the truck and she bought a small structure the size of a shed. She outfitted it with all the commercial-grade equipment. As they did when she opened, local companies and plants will send runners to Diane’s to get tacos, burritos or burgers for their whole crew, she said.
“We said we want it comparable to any little restaurant you see in the area,” she said.
There’s no heating at the restaurant, though, so it closes for the winter, from Oct. 1 until the beginning of March. When the restaurant is closed, Millich caters fulltime for small events.
The advice of Millich’s husband, Myron Olguin, to feature homemade tortillas – which are made the way Millich’s grandmother made them on the reservation – proved valuable.
“Having the homemade tortillas is what became our brand,” Millich said. In addition to her own restaurant, she makes tortillas for Francisco’s Restaurante Y Cantina in downtown Durango. On one occasion, she sent her tortillas overnight to Michigan because a customer read about them on Facebook.
Millich did not stop with just the tortillas and burritos, though.
“As I became more defined, and customers started coming more and more, then I thought, we’ve got the breakfast burritos and regular burritos on the homemade tortilla, now we need that really good burger for lunch on a homemade tortilla,” she said.
The burgers are modeled after those served at Durango’s Rocket Drive-In theater, which closed in 2004, she said. They’re griddle-fried and available dry or smothered in red or green New Mexican chile.
Diane’s also serves Frito pies and sopapillas. Everything at the restaurant is made there, down to the chips and salsa, with the exception of the fries, Millich said. Local flavor comes across in the salsa made with steamed tomatoes and chokecherry sauce.
“It’s just like really simple, down-home cooking, you could say,” she said. It’s “New Mexican food with a Native twist.”
Cooking was always a part of Millich’s life, she said. She previously worked at Francisco’s with Ted Garcia, who was murdered in 2010.
“He was the culinary artist and I was just a cook.”
Chemotherapy influenced her cooking, too, she said.
“You’re always told what you can and cannot eat, and you’re always susceptible to illness and getting everybody’s bugs, and I guess that’s what taught me how to cook wholesomely.”
Millich is a Southern Ute tribal member, and her restaurant is on the reservation.
“The way I was raised is, ‘Our doors are always open to anyone who wants to come and eat,’” she said. “We’re really just here to share the food that was given to me by past generations.”