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

CORONA DEL MAR, Calif. – Larry J. Cano, the founder of the El Torito restaurant chain who helped popularize guacamole, fajitas and margaritas with the U.S. masses, has died at age 90.

His former longtime assistant Lee Healy confirmed Cano’s death for The Associated Press on Monday. He died of pancreatic cancer Wednesday at his home in Corona Del Mar, California, Healy said.

Cano, who served as a fighter pilot during World War II, took over a closed-down Polynesian restaurant in Los Angeles in 1954 and turned it into the first El Torito.

He served a mild version of Mexican food that was friendly to mid-century American tastes at a time when there was a burgeoning hunger for the cuisine. Cano said a more authentic cuisine might have scared off many American diners when he was starting out.

“You have to do what you have to do,” he told the OC Weekly newspaper in 2011. “It would be ridiculous to have spicy food for the first time someone tries Mexican food and kill them.”

Cano expanded the restaurant to 22 locations by the time he sold the chain in 1978 to New York-based W.R. Grace & Co.

He stayed on as president, overseeing the opening of nearly 200 outlets by his 1988 retirement.

Fajitas and blended margaritas are among the dishes and drinks he made common in the U.S.

“He was iconic,” Don Myers, owner of Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen in Brea, who worked with Cano in his early days, told the Orange County Register, which first reported Cano’s death.