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
“I’d tell workers to get into a restaurant and start learning—spy,” Cano says unapologetically. “Stay a couple of weeks, get fired, then come back and tell us what you learned.” Such subterfuge created a chain of copying, with restaurants eyeing what El Torito debuted only to take it for themselves.
At the company’s height, Cano opened 54 El Toritos in one year, able to do whatever he wanted because W.R. Grace’s CEO, Peter Grace, knew nothing about Mexican food other than that people liked it and it made money.
Meanwhile, back in Orange County, Cano opened other restaurants outside of the El Torito brand after a stranger snidely asked when he’d ever open a “real” restaurant. “That got to me, so I decided to buy some buildings and open new places,” he says. In 1977, he debuted Cano’s in Newport Beach, which predated the gourmet-Mexican trend popularized by Rick Bayless by nearly a decade and proved an instant moneymaker, even in such hoity-toity environs. Against the advice of his superiors, he bought a French eatery on the cliffs of Laguna Beach called the Victor Hugo Inn in 1979 and renamed it Las Brisas, switching the menu to emphasize fine-dining Mexican seafood; the restaurant remains an Orange County institution, with some of the most breathtaking views of any restaurant in Southern California. A couple of years later, Cano debuted Chanteclair in Irvine, creating another hit, this time with traditional French cuisine.
By 1988, El Torito operated 248 locations across the United States and took in sales of $500 million. Cano figured it was time to retire as the company’s president. “I thought I was getting old,” he says. He was 64 and a fixture on Orange County’s society pages, and he wanted to ski. After stepping down from El Torito’s presidency, Cano started two corporations to open other restaurants. He bought Cano’s outright from El Torito to manage it on his own.
That’s when the troubles began.
It seems simple enough: churros in a bag. But the melted dark chocolate in one ramekin has hints of chipotle at the back, and another container features luscious cajeta. Castillo watches the waiter prepare the churros, but then steps in. In a kind voice, he teaches the waiter how to properly shake the bag so the powdered sugar and cinnamon evenly spread across the fritters.
El Torito Grill is filling up. This is one of Cano’s favorite outposts of the El Torito empire, his last contribution to the company before leaving for good. In 1986, the first El Torito Grill opened in Fashion Island, a concept Cano created after hearing too many critiques that he had spawned a fake-Mexican-food plague across the country.
“I always had mole and chile Colorado on my menus,” Cano charges. “They never sold in the early days, but it was my cuisine. We had to have them because that authenticity distinguished us from everyone else. I couldn’t conceive of pre-formed taco shells. It just wasn’t my cultural experience. Sure, the food had to appeal to a larger audience, but not down to the level of others.”
The higher-end concept proved a last hurrah for both Cano and the company he founded. He had to declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1994 for the corporations that ran his restaurants; a judge ordered all his assets liquidated to satisfy creditors, which meant the closing of his beloved Cano’s. His longtime valet charged more than $430,000 to Cano’s credit cards; the former employee faced criminal theft charges, but those were ultimately dismissed. “I wasn’t paying attention,” he says. “All I could do was accept it.” Meanwhile, El Torito began closing down restaurants, victim of the very trend it helped to create as newer restaurants claiming they were an authentic alternative to El Torito opened and a new wave of Mexican immigration introduced different flavors to the United States. Chi-Chi’s overtook them nationally as the largest casual-dining Mexican chain in the country. In 1998, it lost a lawsuit against Tortilla Flats of Laguna Beach for supposedly violating the restaurant’s trademark on “Taco Tuesday”; terms of the settlement were never disclosed, but Tortilla Flats sought relief in the millions. Out of Denver, Chipotle and Qdoba took the massive burritos of San Francisco’s Mission District and introduced Mexican food to fast-casual restaurants, dealing a crippling blow to the casual-dining industry.
One day in the late 1990s, Cano decided to show up unannounced at El Torito’s headquarters in Irvine. “When he showed up, people stood up and applauded,” recalls a former employee who requested anonymity. “People went up to him and asked, ‘Mr. Cano, when are you coming back? Are you back?’ The president at the time wasn’t pleased.”
Nor was Cano. The people who ran El Torito in those days, he says, “were financial people who didn’t have a feel for the food side of things.” Meanwhile, many of Cano’s disciples made names for themselves in the restaurant world after leaving El Torito. David Wilhem began opening high-end restaurants across the country. The founder of the Yard House chain worked under Cano, as did Starbucks senior vice president Michael Casey and Russell Bendel, current CEO of the Habit Burger Grill chain. But Cano himself had nothing to do. He was in his 70s and mostly stewed in his Corona del Mar home, getting up at 4:30 a.m. to walk and do little else. He kept itching for another chance, even an opportunity to help out El Torito on a consulting basis, but the brass didn’t bother to contact him.