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El Torito Founder Is Still the Big Enchilada

Does 86-year-old Larry J. Cano, who spread sit-down Mexican dining across the U.S., have one more cuisine-changing idea in him?

El Torito Founder Is Still the Big Enchilada

COCKTAILS
The El Torito Grill in Anaheim is nearly empty. It’s around 3 in the afternoon—the late-December rains ended just hours earlier, and dinnertime’s first brave diners trickle in. Most hit the bar; waiters seat a few in the main dining room, a beautiful, if too-pre-planned area that draws on all the motifs of Hispanic-restaurant architecture familiar to Americans. Moorish arches separate the mustard-colored dining room from the bar; the chairs, made of leather and dark wood, seem pulled from the court of the Bourbons. Dramatic triptychs feature agave plants, and Navajo-style pottery stands on ledges. On invisible Bose speakers, legendary ranchera singer Miguel Aceves Mejia hits the last, impossibly high notes of “La Malagüeña” (“The Lady From Malaga”), the bolero that paints as great a romantic, nostalgic image of Old Mexico as any song ever penned.

No one in the room—not the guests, not the servers, not the hosts—bothers with the elderly gentleman in a leather jacket and tie who slowly walks in, heads toward the back, sits down at a table with two guests and orders a Chardonnay. A waiter eventually approaches the group. “Would the table care for a tableside margarita?” he asks. The table would. The table looks on as the waiter grabs a cocktail shaker filled with ice, pours in two shots of 1800 tequila, vigorously shakes the gleaming container for about 30 seconds, then places it on a tray set up for the ritual. He grabs a goblet, rubs the rim with a lime wedge, turns it upside-down, and presses it onto a circular canister packed with salt. Granules now rim the glass, which the waiter sets down to take up the shaker. He pours the margarita into the glass and places the drink in front of a guest. It is smooth and tart; the guests sip and smile in approval. And the old man beams.

“We popularized the margarita in America, you know,” 86-year-old Larry J. Cano states, with the confidence of memory and pride in a lifetime of work the founder of the El Torito restaurant empire should exhibit. “Back at my first restaurant, two young women came in and wanted to spend big at the bar—they had just received a bonus. They ordered a frozen daiquiri, which was really popular at the time. I thought that I should do something like that, except with tequila. I served it to them the next time they came in. From there, we started making it better.”

Larry Cano at Anaheim's El Torito Grill
John Gilhooley
Larry Cano at Anaheim's El Torito Grill
Cano in front of his P-51 Mustang
Cano in front of his P-51 Mustang

Location Info

Map

El Torito Grill

1801 E. Katella Ave.
Anaheim, CA 92805

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Anaheim

Any conversation with Cano comes with a side of such boasts. El Torito spread the practice of tableside guacamole, if you believe Cano. The sizzling fajitas platter. Flour tortillas with butter. A tortilla-making station. Taco Tuesday. The history of Mexican food is peppered with such fantastical, impossible-to-prove claims regarding the genesis of any number of foods and traditions—no fewer than eight origin stories about the margarita float around in writings on Mexican-American cookery.

But in the case of Cano, the claims he utters are as close to true as any. It was Cano who took El Torito from a tiki bar in Encino to one of the largest Mexican-restaurant chains in the United States. It was his company that customized California-Mexican cuisine—the endless combos of enchiladas, chile rellenos, burritos, tacos and guacamole—for mainstream consumption, taking the meals out of the barrios and fast-food dives of Southern California and into sit-down restaurants in areas across the country where customers didn’t know how to pronounce the meals they waited for in hour-long lines. Cano weathered vicious restaurant wars, personal missteps and numerous imitators to achieve that rarified position: a true innovator, an actual pioneer. He is one of the few Mexicans to have an impact on Mexican-food trends in the United States—in an industry notorious for seeing gabachos make billions off meals they copied from Mexican cooks and restaurateurs.

And Cano is not done yet.

APPETIZERS
The first appetizer of the evening arrives: shredded chicken taquitos accompanied by a red-pepper sauce that features a splash of guacamole mousse. The brick-red taquitos, sliced six to an order, finger-long but thumb-thick, sit under snowballs of cotija cheese. The table digs in; slivers of fried tortilla snap and fly off mouths. They’re gone within two minutes.

Cano—skinny, with a head of gunmetal-gray hair, strong eyes and the simultaneously stentorian-yet-kind voice of an abuelito—nibbles on one. “Delicious,” he says. He claims he was born in East Los Angeles in 1924, the son of a Mexican immigrant from Chihuahua and a mother from San Antonio. His childhood was typical of a young Mexican-American man growing up in Southern California during that era—a hardscrabble upbringing of segregation, work at a young age as a dishwasher and a transformation into manhood during World War II.

Cano forsook UCLA to enlist in the Army Air Force Reserve, doing two tours of Europe in a P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft. After the war, Cano and a friend visited Mexico City for Christmas vacation. “We were treated like kings because of our uniforms,” Cano remembers. “There was one restaurant where they told us the tables were full and we couldn’t get served. We went back to our hotels and put on our uniforms. The service came quickly after that. That was great, but it got me thinking that all customers should get that treatment. And it got me thinking about running a restaurant.”

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