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
More El Toritos opened over the next decade, always focusing on upscale communities, the better to target disposable incomes and people looking to hop on the casual-dining Mexican-food trend. Cano insists he opened the first Mexican restaurant inside a mall, an El Torito in what is now Lakewood Center. By 1971, he broke into the Orange County market with a different restaurant concept, La Fiesta, at the Orange Mall; a full-scale El Torito in Newport Beach followed in 1973.
With each new opening, Cano tinkered with his formula. At his Marina del Rey branch, he introduced a Sunday brunch, a concept he takes credit for creating. In Rancho Mirage in the early 1970s, during the off-season, Cano hit upon the idea of offering Taco Tuesday to spark more revenue. “People were eating tacos in the bathroom because it was so crowded,” he says. Each new El Torito offered bigger and bigger bars and patios, the better to entice in singles for margaritas—at one point, according to company records, El Torito was buying more tequila than any other restaurant chain in the United States.
As Cano’s empire expanded, buyout offers began pouring in—from competitors, from investors, even from businesses that had no previous experience operating restaurants. “The head of Carnation Milk once took me to lunch in New York,” Cano says. “He told me, ‘Whatever someone offers you, I’ll top it by a million.’” He declined that offer, but the money proved too tempting. In 1976, he sold El Torito to W.R. Grace & Co., a multinational chemical company that was trying to diversify its holdings. Cano had opened 22 El Toritos by then, stretching from Denver to Seattle and all across Southern California; he had also amassed a sizable personal fortune, enough to snag him a home in Santa Ana Heights. But the company still had debt Cano wanted to retire. Upon buying the company from him for about $20 million, W.R. Grace immediately hired him as president of El Torito with a simple directive: expand. And fast.
On the menu, pairing mashed sweet potatoes with pineapple chutney on top of a Kurobuta pork cutlet marinated adobo-style reads like an artifact of the Southwestern-cuisine craze of the 1980s. But on the plate and the palate, the combination from El Torito Grill’s seasonal menu works: lean meat, charred so the skin slightly crackles but the inside remains moist. A trio of cebollitas artfully stacked on the side and a heap of grilled ejotes give the dish the air of a carne-asada Sunday gone gourmet.
Out to greet Cano is Arturo Castillo, the chef in charge of all El Toritos in Los Angeles and Orange counties. “¿Como esta, Señor Cano?” he asks in a rumbling voice.
“Bien, ¿y usted?” Cano replies in flawless Spanish. The two embrace.
Castillo—a burly man with a thick mustache and the countenance of a construction worker—is starstruck. “El Torito has maintained my family for 35 years,” the Orange resident says. “And it’s all because of Señor Cano. At this company, we don’t find work; we find a home.”
The Mexican immigrant began at the company as a dishwasher in San Diego in 1976, just recently emigrated from Guanajuato. Within two years, Cano had Castillo and other trusted employees hurryingly opening El Toritos in places where Mexican food wasn’t a custom. He put new employees through a rigorous nine-day training that came complete with glossaries, menus, the history of certain dishes, even phonetic pronunciations to ensure waiters wouldn’t flub the proper name of a meal.
Although El Torito had the advantage of already owning the California market, it faced stiff competition elsewhere. In Texas, “we just got killed,” Cano admits. “We were too upscale.” They also came up against Chi-Chi’s, a chain started in Minnesota by Texas restaurateur Marno McDermott and former Green Bay Packers star Max McGee. It opened a year before Cano officially sold El Torito and immediately proved a smash with massive dinners, spacious restaurants, and menus and layouts (with an emphasis on the bar) almost identical to what El Torito offered.
Cano maintains he never considered Chi-Chi’s a serious competitor, mainly because he and his crew were mostly Mexican, while McDermott and McGee were not. “They had no Mexican background,” he says. “They had no restaurant background. They didn’t care about authenticity—they just cared about the bottom line.”
But that approach worked for Chi-Chi’s. In 1982, when Time magazine ran an article on the rising popularity of Mexican dining titled “The Enchilada Millionaires,” Cano got his picture in the profile—but Chi-Chi’s earned the magazine’s praise for having just gone public on Wall Street and becoming an investor sweetheart.
Undeterred, Cano enlisted his troops for reconnaissance missions. “Larry was never content to rest on his laurels,” says Lee Healy, a Newport Beach public-relations agent who worked as Cano’s executive assistant for decades. “We would meet every Monday, and Larry would set people on fire to do great things. Instead of spending money on advertising, he emphasized the guest. Larry would say, ‘Get on a plane, rent a car, find the lines at Mexican restaurants, and see why they’re there.’” It was Healy who traveled to Texas and saw billboards for a restaurant named Ninfa’s, credited with popularizing the fajitas platter in Texas, as well as tacos al carbon—both South Texas specialties. El Torito took the tacos al carbon and fajitas from Ninfa’s, with the idea of presenting the latter tableside in a sizzling cast-iron skillet coming from a different restaurant.