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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?

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.

“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.

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

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.

DESSERT
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.

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27 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...

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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linaimai

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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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