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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?

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.

In 2000, the owners of the Acapulco chain—itself started in 1960 as an El Torito ripoff—bought out El Torito, renaming itself Real Mex Restaurants in 2004 and moving El Torito’s offices to Cypress. Real Mex runs nearly 200 casual-dining Mexican restaurants (Acapulco, Chevys and Casa Gallardo are other chains under its domain) nationwide and had sales in 2010 of nearly half a billion dollars. There are 68 El Toritos left, all but one in California. In Orange County, 13 remain, along with five of the eight El Torito Grills. In 2009, new CEO Dick Rivera began calling Cano on a regular basis, bouncing ideas off him and even inviting him to speak with managers and employees to inspire them, as in the old days of mega-expansion.

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

“When I think of Larry Cano, I’m thinking of an artist,” says Stefano Albano, regional director for Real Mex Restaurants. “If you talk to them, their paintings and art are always a search for perfection. That vision—they’ll never lose it. They’ll always try to improve. There is no such thing as ‘I finally made it’ for these people. How can you not want to listen to them?”

COFFEE
An espresso spiked with Patrón XO Coffee Liqueur concludes the evening. El Torito Grill is now slammed: businessmen, couples on dates, tourists with screaming children, black, white, Asian and more than a few Latinos. The televisions broadcast basketball games; the music, still rancheras. Cano remains restless. He is meeting with investors soon to pitch a new restaurant concept, about which he remains mum.

“The fusion of Mexican food with others is the next step,” he says, bringing up Kogi BBQ, the Korean taco truck. “I’m amazed that the tamal hasn’t played a bigger role so far in Mexican food like the taco and burrito and enchiladas. Maybe there. When you have nothing to do during the day, you start thinking.”

It’s time to go. Now, El Torito employees hover around Cano, talking in English and Spanish, sharing laughs and memories, backslapping and shaking hands with him. “Thanks to you, I was able to put my family through college,” one cook stammers, nearly on the edge of tears. Cano smiles, shakes his hand and pats him on the back, then thanks him.

“It is just amazing to see someone who started with nothing and built an empire,” Albano says. “I don’t care if he’s 86—when the father speaks, everyone listens.”

garellano@ocweekly.com

This article appeared in print as "The Big Enchilada: Does El Torito founder Larry J. Cano have one more cuisine-changing idea in him?"

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