Larry Cano, the founder of the El Torito chain, and one of the unsung heroes of Mexican food's conquest of America, passed away this weekend after a short bout with cancer. He was 90.
It was Cano who popularized the concept of the sit-down Mexican chain, a place where you could get tacos and a margarita while listening to music. It was in Cano's chain that the margarita found its trampoline to become America's most popular cocktails. It was in El Torito where nowadays-clichéd ideas such as sizzling fajitas plates, tableside guacamole, Southwestern cuisine, nachos and so much more first found a mainstream audience. Hell, Cano's El Torito was the first non-taco Mexican food experience for swaths of the U.S.–and yet his story was largely unknown until the last years of his life.
I first profiled Cano in a 2011 story for this rag, a story I went on to include in my book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Although he was a native of East Los Angeles, Cano moved to Orange County almost as soon as he found success with El Torito; local eaters of a certain era, in fact, might remember him best for his high-end Cano's in Newport Beach in the 1980s and for turning the old Victor Hugo Inn in Laguna Beach into the iconic Las Brisas. And while El Torito is slowly disappearing from the landscape, eclipsed by newer Mexican food trends, Cano's ultimate monument just might be those new trends–wouldn't have been possible without his good work.
The last time I saw Cano was earlier this year, at a dinner at Taco Rosa in Tustin honoring his pioneering ways. It was almost like when America held a banquet for Mark Twain, as various restaurant luminaries who started their career showed up to give their personal thanks or email and text their salutations from afar. And even into his 90th birthday, Cano was thinking of new ideas to which to unveil in the coming years, ideas that will go with him to the Big Combo Plate in the Sky.
There will be no funeral or memorial at Cano's request, per family members. Instead, those who wish to honor him are urged to raise a margarita or five–light on the salt, por favor.