STYLE

Larry Cano, El Torito founder who helped bring Mexican food to US mainstream, dies at 90

12/16/2014 06:16 EST | Updated 02/15/2015 05:59 EST
LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Larry J. Cano once said it was not his love of food so much as it was the way he was treated in a Mexican restaurant during a visit to his father's homeland that led him to help popularize Mexican food in the United States.

Cano, who been a fighter pilot during World War II, paid a visit to Mexico City with a military buddy soon after the war. There, the pair were "treated like kings" wherever they went in uniform, including to a crowded restaurant that had been too busy to serve them when they were dressed as civilians.

"That was great, but it got me thinking that all customers should get that treatment," the founder of the El Torito restaurant chain told the OCWeekly newspaper in 2011. "And it got me thinking about running a restaurant."

It took a few years of college, followed by service during the Korean War, before he got the chance. But when he did, Cano, who died Wednesday at age 90 at his home in Corona Del Mar, made the most of it.

He had been managing a Polynesian restaurant in Los Angeles in 1954 when the owner died and his widow asked Cano if he wanted to take the place over. He did, but only after switching the menu to the kind of food he'd grown up in Los Angeles with — or at least a milder, gringo-oriented version of it.

"You have to do what you have to do," he said in that 2011 interview, explaining why he went easy on the chilies, jalapenos and other red-hot ingredients that characterize much of authentic Mexican food. "It would be ridiculous to have spicy food for the first time someone tries Mexican food and kill them."

Instead, he went heavily on the decor, using ferns, pottery, stucco arches and other such accoutrements to transform El Torito into something someone who had seen a Hollywood movie set in Mexico might imagine a Mexican restaurant would look like.

El Torito, Spanish for "The Little Bull," was an immediate hit, and Cano soon opened a second one in an upscale section of Los Angeles. When he put a third in Hollywood, he began to attract a celebrity crowd, and word of the ice-cold, tequila-powered margaritas he was serving with taco and enchilada combo plates soon spread.

By the time he sold the chain in 1978 to New York-based W.R. Grace & Co. he had opened 22 restaurants. He stayed on as president until his retirement in 1988, by which time nearly 200 El Toritos had opened.

In the years since, the restaurant chain has gone through a series of owners. It is now one of eight brands operated by Real Mex Restaurants.

"Larry was a pioneer and visionary in America's Mexican food industry, and his countless contributions have left a lasting mark on the entire industry," Real Mex said Tuesday in a statement. "We are forever grateful for Larry's unparalleled dedication to El Torito and will continue to honour his legacy of innovation as well as customer, employee and company devotion."

Information on funeral arrangements and survivors was not immediately available.

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