El Torito Founder Is Still the Big Enchilada
The El Torito Grill in Anaheim is nearly empty. It’s around 3 in the afternoon—the late-December rains ended just hours earlier, and dinnertime’s first brave diners trickle in. Most hit the bar; waiters seat a few in the main dining room, a beautiful, if too-pre-planned area that draws on all the motifs of Hispanic-restaurant architecture familiar to Americans. Moorish arches separate the mustard-colored dining room from the bar; the chairs, made of leather and dark wood, seem pulled from the court of the Bourbons. Dramatic triptychs feature agave plants, and Navajo-style pottery stands on ledges. On invisible Bose speakers, legendary ranchera singer Miguel Aceves Mejia hits the last, impossibly high notes of “La Malagüeña” (“The Lady From Malaga”), the bolero that paints as great a romantic, nostalgic image of Old Mexico as any song ever penned.
No one in the room—not the guests, not the servers, not the hosts—bothers with the elderly gentleman in a leather jacket and tie who slowly walks in, heads toward the back, sits down at a table with two guests and orders a Chardonnay. A waiter eventually approaches the group. “Would the table care for a tableside margarita?” he asks. The table would. The table looks on as the waiter grabs a cocktail shaker filled with ice, pours in two shots of 1800 tequila, vigorously shakes the gleaming container for about 30 seconds, then places it on a tray set up for the ritual. He grabs a goblet, rubs the rim with a lime wedge, turns it upside-down, and presses it onto a circular canister packed with salt. Granules now rim the glass, which the waiter sets down to take up the shaker. He pours the margarita into the glass and places the drink in front of a guest. It is smooth and tart; the guests sip and smile in approval. And the old man beams.
“We popularized the margarita in America, you know,” 86-year-old Larry J. Cano states, with the confidence of memory and pride in a lifetime of work the founder of the El Torito restaurant empire should exhibit. “Back at my first restaurant, two young women came in and wanted to spend big at the bar—they had just received a bonus. They ordered a frozen daiquiri, which was really popular at the time. I thought that I should do something like that, except with tequila. I served it to them the next time they came in. From there, we started making it better.”
Any conversation with Cano comes with a side of such boasts. El Torito spread the practice of tableside guacamole, if you believe Cano. The sizzling fajitas platter. Flour tortillas with butter. A tortilla-making station. Taco Tuesday. The history of Mexican food is peppered with such fantastical, impossible-to-prove claims regarding the genesis of any number of foods and traditions—no fewer than eight origin stories about the margarita float around in writings on Mexican-American cookery.
But in the case of Cano, the claims he utters are as close to true as any. It was Cano who took El Torito from a tiki bar in Encino to one of the largest Mexican-restaurant chains in the United States. It was his company that customized California-Mexican cuisine—the endless combos of enchiladas, chile rellenos, burritos, tacos and guacamole—for mainstream consumption, taking the meals out of the barrios and fast-food dives of Southern California and into sit-down restaurants in areas across the country where customers didn’t know how to pronounce the meals they waited for in hour-long lines. Cano weathered vicious restaurant wars, personal missteps and numerous imitators to achieve that rarified position: a true innovator, an actual pioneer. He is one of the few Mexicans to have an impact on Mexican-food trends in the United States—in an industry notorious for seeing gabachos make billions off meals they copied from Mexican cooks and restaurateurs.
And Cano is not done yet.
The first appetizer of the evening arrives: shredded chicken taquitos accompanied by a red-pepper sauce that features a splash of guacamole mousse. The brick-red taquitos, sliced six to an order, finger-long but thumb-thick, sit under snowballs of cotija cheese. The table digs in; slivers of fried tortilla snap and fly off mouths. They’re gone within two minutes.
Cano—skinny, with a head of gunmetal-gray hair, strong eyes and the simultaneously stentorian-yet-kind voice of an abuelito—nibbles on one. “Delicious,” he says. He claims he was born in East Los Angeles in 1924, the son of a Mexican immigrant from Chihuahua and a mother from San Antonio. His childhood was typical of a young Mexican-American man growing up in Southern California during that era—a hardscrabble upbringing of segregation, work at a young age as a dishwasher and a transformation into manhood during World War II.
Cano forsook UCLA to enlist in the Army Air Force Reserve, doing two tours of Europe in a P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft. After the war, Cano and a friend visited Mexico City for Christmas vacation. “We were treated like kings because of our uniforms,” Cano remembers. “There was one restaurant where they told us the tables were full and we couldn’t get served. We went back to our hotels and put on our uniforms. The service came quickly after that. That was great, but it got me thinking that all customers should get that treatment. And it got me thinking about running a restaurant.”
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.”
Another celebrity frequented El Torito as well in those early years. One day, while working in the kitchen, Cano noticed a car parked just outside his Encino restaurant, with a man sitting inside. A week later, Cano saw the same car, with the same man sitting in the car for a long time. An infuriated Cano walked toward the car and demanded to know why the man was there. The man introduced himself as Glenn Bell and told him, “We’re starting a restaurant operation and wanted to see what you’re doing.” Bell would go on to start Taco Bell, the largest chain of Mexican restaurants in the world.
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.
“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.
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.
“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?”
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.”
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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