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?

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.”

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28 comments
diane
diane

What a remarkable life story! I was priviledged to have been among those who worked for Mr. Cano during the growth years of El Torito beginning in the 1970's. He was a pioneer at a time when Mexican food was not a common on-every-corner lunch/dinner option. It was through dedication to quality, cleanliness and service that El Torito became among the nations largest resturant chains. That incredible edible shell and even the recognizable "Margarita stemware" by Libby are the direct result of Mr. Cano's  significant role in innovation in the restuarant industry. El Torito Mexican Resturants (Marina) was the first in the country to help develope the "computer - cash register" known as the NCR 250 later as the El Torito-La Fiesta national expansion began, the joint "learning experience " resulted in the development of the NCR 2160 changing the way kitchen orders are relayed by the servers to the kitchen and elinating hand written card stock guest checks. It was through the courageous efforts of Mr Cano that many of his employees were priviledged to leave the comforts of califonia living to take the concept of Mexican food to cities east of the rockies where avocados had not ever been seen and where state controlled liqoour stores had never before had to order tequila from Mexico.  Yes, Mr Cano changed the resturant industy and he also changed lives  His vision gave many of today's resturant executives the training, exposure to diverse market segments, opportunuty to explore cultural diversity, discover the multitude of multiple and overlaping municipal building/fire/liqour/labor codes and always with a support system a home ready encourage even after the most unpredictable thing happened. Mr Cano didi not seal himself inan ivory tower  - he even ran the dishwasher when an unanticipated overflow of guests flooded the normally slow early breakfast shift one Chubasco morning.With all tables full the memory will never fade of the President working the dish machine,the Vice President bussing tables and the Supervisor taking food orders. Mr Cano led his employees by example that the entire staff is a team working together. It is his influence on many lives that has been instrumental in the creation of many eateries and of course as a by product thousands of jobs not just in Southern California but in the entire United States. From Burger and Donut Chains, French, Italian, Steak and Seafood Specialtiy Resturants and even the reliable Coffee house the influence of Larry J Cano has had an impact. The standards that made the El Torito-La Fiesta  chain grow paved the way for college students and career hospitality workers to experience what for many of us was an opportunity to create that special experience when with a twinkle in the eye the guest says we want to come back again real soon.  I am extremely grateful to Mr Cano for the vast array of experience I was priviledged to have as a woman been treated like a lady and encouraged to expand my horizons during a time when management positions across the country were still reserved for men. It was because of Mr Cano's gracious character that many of his employees will always consider him among the finest of gentlemen, and talented entrepaneur..

tatoocesar11
tatoocesar11

i lost my family and my daughter cause of your general manager whos name is "John Larrazabal" hes dating my ex-fiances who is a employee at el torito in upland california. 3680 inland empire blvd. ontario ca,91744.which her name is "Desiree Olivia Salas".my ex-fiance who was having a affair with your general manager "John Larrazabal" and he knew before she left me for him she was in a relationship with me.he would give her gifts after work like flowers and chocolates everyday after work!!knowing we have a child together as well.and once i found out i told her i was gonna file a complaint to "el torito headquarter" so she called the cops and made a report saying im threatening her and her new boyfriend that im gonna cost harm to them both.i have prove on legal paper work that there both dating. and i also know it says work policy that "general managers" are not suppose to be dating any of the employee's."desiree Salas" hasn't even been working a whole year in el torito."John" favore in her more moved her up as a server from a host.and he even gave her a raise all because thats his new "GirlFriend hes dating"!! and thanks to him my daughter dosn't have her father in her life any more:"( i already appointed a peralegal to help me sue el torito! for "Emotional Destress" im ina really deep depression at this hevy moment :( im also taking anti depression medication. please e-mail me at "tatoocesar11@hotmail.com" im just looking for closure...

tatoocesar11
tatoocesar11

i lost my family and my daughter cause of your general manager whos name is "John Larrazabal" hes dating my ex-fiances who is a employee at el torito in upland california. 3680 inland empire blvd. ontario ca,91744.which her name is "Desiree Olivia Salas".my ex-fiance who was having a affair with your general manager "John Larrazabal" and he knew before she left me for him she was in a relationship with me.he would give her gifts after work like flowers and chocolates everyday after work!!knowing we have a child together as well.and once i found out i told her i was gonna file a complaint to "el torito headquarter" so she called the cops and made a report saying im threatening her and her new boyfriend that im gonna cost harm to them both.i have prove on legal paper work that there both dating. and i also know it says work policy that "general managers" are not suppose to be dating any of the employee's."desiree Salas" hasn't even been working a whole year in el torito."John" favore in her more moved her up as a server from a host.and he even gave her a raise all because thats his new "GirlFriend hes dating"!! and thanks to him my daughter dosn't have her father in her life any more:"( i already appointed a peralegal to help me sue el torito! for "Emotional Destress" im ina really deep depression at this hevy moment :( im also taking anti depression medication. please e-mail me at "tatoocesar11@hotmail.com" im just looking for closure...

Fernando
Fernando

what the press says????? the service and quality of these CHAIN restaurants is going down the drain, and it s going pretty damm fast!!!!!!! Wake up and smell the coffee, I started working in one of these restaurants 25 years ago and have done more than well. What is happening to these restaurants? It is a shame !! Press can be bought!!!!

Dmoney
Dmoney

I work as a manager for El Torito and was fortunate enough to meet this man recently. He is an amazing person, furthermore, there are many than have worked for the restaurant concept for over 30 years. He not only treats his guests with the utmost hospitality and respect, but everyone who works or has worked for him. He is an icon.

Banjoe32
Banjoe32

where in East L.A. was Mr Larry Cano raised. I wonder if he liived in Boyle Heights.

judy
judy

My party of 3 arrived at El Torito at 1145 am Sunday 3/20/11 and was advised the wait was to be approx 20 to 25 minutes, they stated they had a party of 40 leaving soon, and most of us would be seated in that area. At 1230 I asked about the wait time, again was advised it would be 20 to 25 minutes. I observied patrons being seated that arrived after our party. I visited with the gentleman waiting nex to me, he stated that his party of 3 had arrived after we were already checked in. He was called and seated before us. At 12:50 again inquired about wait time and was advised we should be seated in the next 15 minutes. I asked about the party of 40 leaving, and was advised that when they were leaving El Torito received a reservation for 50 and they were placed in that location. Another patron stated she had been waiting for over one hour, after being told the wait was 20 to 25 minutes, she was asking if her party would still be serviced the buffet meanu, the attendance stated she had never worked this shift before, but she guess that guest arriving before 2:00 would be served the buffet menu. She never offered to check if this was correct information. At 1:05 I advised the attendance that since we were still not near being seated we would just go elsewhere. She stated that would be OK. After waiting 1 hour and 20 minutes we left. Just wish we had been advised from the begining that the wait was going to be over 1 hour, not 20 to 25 minutes. A little bit on honesty would have gone a long ways. We will not be back even though the establishment is less that 5 blocks from my work.

Ronnieraygunsjr
Ronnieraygunsjr

Sr. Cano, come back to Encino, we miss u & El Torito!!!

Arthur Thornton
Arthur Thornton

We had our first visit to El Toro on march 5 and were very impressed with the complete experience. I had the very best quesadillas (senora-style) ever. My Wife had nachos supreme also very good along with very good house margarita. The service and atmostphere were excellent also We are visiting from the East coast & think you should consider expanding your business there. Arthur Thornton..

Janice Eckert
Janice Eckert

I did not have a fine dining experience at the El Torito near the airport in Ontario, Calif. There were a group of 8 at my table, we order drinks and the waiter brought the chips and salsa. One tiny black basket of chips and a small saucer of green salsa. I ask for a large basket of chips and the customary red salsa. "We don't have red salsa". I ordered my usual Tostada Supreme with the chicken with the redish sauce on the side. My chicken was bits of chicken in a brown sauce. My tostada did not the have the crisp taste that I am use to ,it tasted mushy. I wonder if there has been a change in ownership? A change in management?

Tony Gaitan, Cypress, CA
Tony Gaitan, Cypress, CA

A Great success story about a very special man!

I would LOVE to meet Mr. Larry Cano because my Dad and Mr. Larry Cano's Dad go way back when they were ELA buddies.

After I graduated from USC in '57 my DAD would tell me about the success that his buddies (Larry's Dad) son, also a USC GRAD, was having in the restaurant business. Mr Larry Cano, my Dad would tell me, would send a couple of LIMOS to pick up his DAD and his DAD's buddies when it was Larry's Dad's birthday. I would Love to meet a fellow USC grad and who like me grew up in ELA. My DAD has been gone now for over 30 years and so too probably is Larry's Dad! Hope I have the opportunity to meet Mr Larry Cano some time soon.

Tony

tb
tb

You can build a big business - or a good business - which will it be?

ELeal
ELeal

Great Article Gustavo! We need more stories like these...so inspiring! Love it.

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Raincheck
Raincheck

I worked with El Torito back in the day, and am glad to see Larry get some of the recognition he deserves. We made EVERYTHING from scratch - sauces, salsas, chips, tamales, you name it. And El Torito Grill was way ahead of it's time. Larry was a leader and an innovator, but most important he cared about quality above all else.

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Pduran91801
Pduran91801

He's actually my cousin. We lost contact with him. we used to go swimming at his house in Woodland hills. Glad to hear he is doing well.

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Guest
Guest

Gustavo, the thing you should take away from this is that Real Mex maintains distinct identities for its restaurants. El Torito--eh. El Torito *Grill*--much better. Chevy's--quite good: you should make the trip to the one surviving OC Chevy's. Acapulco--good, but toned down spices. Las Brisas--no, it's not authentic, but it is its own self, and extremely good: you or someone at OC Weekly should give it a chance to be itself instead of complaining it isn't what you want it to be.

ATG
ATG

Great account Gus.

Oddly, I sit in the Hawthorne El Torito grill as I type.

I consider myself an excellent cook and Mexican food is one of my specialties. I've yet to make anything as good as they do at El Torito. Their carne asada is perfection and the food in general is very good. I love the regional specialties menus that rotate periodically.

Long_Time_MB
Long_Time_MB

I have never cared for El Torito and still don't. Their food is overpriced and not good.

But El Torito Grill is fabulous! So different from El Torito, And those fresh tortillas with the spreads are to die for.

Reader
Reader

What an amazing account of this legend's efforts towards building such a long-standing Mexican food empire.

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Berkshire411
Berkshire411

Great story, love the place and now I can love the history.

Alakrozer
Alakrozer

A southern California legend. We should know more of people like Mr. Cano as he brings inspiration to do better and better things with our lives.

tatoocesar11
tatoocesar11

"Larry Cano" please help me with this situation?? i need your help my e-mail "tatoocesar11@hotmail.com" asap please??

 
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