By OC Weekly Staff
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Kiera Wright-Ruiz
By Cleo Tobbi
He returned to the States and graduated from the University of Southern California with a business degree. Cano thought of becoming a lawyer as well, going so far as to enroll at USC’s School of Law, but his Air Force unit was called to serve in Korea. After the war’s conclusion, Cano returned to Southern California and found a job as a bartender at a tiki-style restaurant in Encino called Bali Hai. The 30-year-old quickly became the manager, which wasn’t much of a promotion. “I cleaned up the puke, the bathrooms, everything,” he says, now laughing but still cringing at the memory. He’d stay the night sometimes, looking to start the following day early, while raising a young family.
In 1954, Bali Hai’s owner passed away, and the widow asked Cano if he wanted the bar. Cano knew that the tiki atmosphere popular with veterans had a limited life and tried to think of what the next big restaurant trend might be. He found the inspiration in the meals he ate at home.
“There weren’t too many Mexican restaurants in the San Fernando Valley at the time,” Cano says. “I needed a business to make my name, and I figured making a nice Mexican restaurant would do it.” Part of the Bali Hai purchase included a ceramic bowl with a bull painted on the inside. From there came the idea to call his new restaurant El Torito—“Or at least, that’s the story we tell, and we stick by it,” Cano says with a chuckle, admitting that the true story is lost to history.
El Torito was starting at a momentous time in the culinary history of Southern California. In the Inland Empire, the McDonald brothers continued to tinker with their eponymous restaurant, setting the standards that would define fast-food restaurants for generations. Across the Southland, diners that once classified themselves as “Spanish” shook off the label’s fantasy heritage and began advertising themselves as Mexican. So-called taco houses sprung up outside Mexican neighborhoods and tourist traps; they were opened by non-Mexicans looking to make money on customers’ demand for a rapidly popular item called the taco.
During this era, what largely passed as Mexican food in Southern California didn’t veer far from the menu pioneered by El Cholo Café, originally opened as the Sonora Café in Los Angeles by the Borquez family in 1923 and the second-oldest Mexican restaurant that’s still open in the United States. It offered meals more accurately classified as Sonoran—an emphasis on flour tortillas, tamales, beef, enchiladas and tostadas. This was the food that Cano grew up on, the food with which he knew white consumers in Southern California were at least vaguely familiar. He wasn’t much of a cook, so Cano hired Mexican-born chefs and ordered them to cook what they, as mexicanos, would like to eat—but with an eye toward the mainstream.
“You have to operate in the area where you are in,” Cano rationalizes. “You have to do what you have to do. It would be ridiculous to have spicy food for the first time someone tries Mexican food and kill them. We’re talking about the masses.”
Success wasn’t guaranteed. In the first couple of months, Cano and his young family got evicted from their home, forcing Cano to live in the restaurant while putting up his wife and children with relatives; eventually, he built bunkers outside that first El Torito so the family could stay with him. But suburbia was exploding during the 1950s, and Encino was one of the better-off neighborhoods of Los Angeles, an enclave of veterans and movie executives more adventurous with their dinners than the average consumer. Knowing his customers thought better of themselves than their neighbors, Cano strove to upscale his new restaurant. “If you greet a guest by their first name, they have already had a good time,” Cano says. “Anything we could do to gain an advantage, we did. After all, we were just selling Mexican food.”
The concept was a smash. Within three years, Cano opened a second location in Toluca Lake; he started a third outpost a year after that in Hollywood. Cano remembers the stars who frequented those establishments: Gregory Peck, Lana Turner, John Wayne. Anthony Quinn always demanded a bottle of tequila and got incensed whenever one of his dates wouldn’t order rice. Jack Webb had a special booth when he stopped in at 10 p.m. multiple times per week. Roy Disney ended his nights there as well, always in a booth, always alone.
A 1959 ad in the Los AngelesTimes reflects Cano’s marketing strategy. It featured a bean on its back, flailing its limbs, and read, “This is a ‘Has-Bean.’ He’s gone stale—so he’ll never make it to El Torito—where his lucky pals are not only getting fried daily—but even refried.” Under the legume was the slogan “The Ultimate in Fine Mexican Food.”
Another celebrity frequented El Torito as well in those early years. One day, while working in the kitchen, Cano noticed a car parked just outside his Encino restaurant, with a man sitting inside. A week later, Cano saw the same car, with the same man sitting in the car for a long time. An infuriated Cano walked toward the car and demanded to know why the man was there. The man introduced himself as Glenn Bell and told him, “We’re starting a restaurant operation and wanted to see what you’re doing.” Bell would go on to start Taco Bell, the largest chain of Mexican restaurants in the world.