Usually, I avoid media dinners because that means I have to rub elbows with PR hacks and the reporters who reprint everything they tell them to, and because accepting free meals doesn't sit well with me, and is something I've never done for any Weekly print review I've ever written. And I always avoid Fashion Island for the obvious reasons, and last visited El Torito a couple years back, in a meet-the-family dinner with the chica that confirmed for us why we rarely hang out with them.
I made an exception to all the above rules last Wednesday, when Patrón and El Torito Grill in Fashion Island paired up for a tequila tasting dinner. But I wasn't there for the food–I was there to hang with El Torito founder, 86-year-old Larry Cano.
As some of ustedes know, I'm working on a book about the history of Mexican food in the United States, set for release sometime next year. Say what we will about El Torito, but its role in spreading the idea of casual-dining Mexican restaurants across the United States is without question. It's also probably the oldest national Mexican restaurant chain in the United States at 56 years young, so the rare opportunity to talk with Cano wasn't something I was going to give up because of Fashion Island.
Cano is still spry despite his age, and we only talked for a little bit, saving a fuller interview for a future date (he did share a whopper of an anecdote about Taco Bell founder Glenn Bell, which I'm saving for the book because it's too good–let's just say Glenn is even more of an usurper than we already know him to be). And the food wasn't bad, either: I arrived late so missed the appetizers, but the cream of poblano soup with masa dumplings was rich, the robalo nicely grilled and saving its too-tomato-y broth, and a duck breast in mole poblano perfect: equal parts bitter and sweet, with all the grease from the bird gone. And while the churros were so-so, an ending coffee drink of a Patrón coffee liqueur, topped with a citrus foam, was stunning–and I hate coffee.
Not everything was perfect. It was supposed to be a tequila tasting event, yet the waiters only served me one shot out of the four we were supposed to receive. The acoustics at El Torito Grill approximated a room filled with sheet metal. And what does tropical music have to do with Mexican food? Nevertheless, the dinner worked, and El Torito CEO Dick Rivera (who sat at our table) vowed to work these dishes into his chain's morass of too-sticky enchiladas and bland refried beans.
As for Cano? Details to come…