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The Whole Enchilada—How Mexican Food Took Off in America

The Whole Enchilada—How Mexican Food Took Off in America

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The Start of a Spicy Love Affair

Taco Bell and Taco John’s recent legal battle over the ‘Taco Tuesdays’ trademark shows Tacos are almost as American as apple pie. Mexican cuisine has become such a popular part of the American food scene that it’s hard to imagine life in the US without it.

Tortilla chips are mainstream, often accompanied by bowls of salsa, queso, or guacamole. Bartenders from coast to coast know how to make a margarita, usually in several varieties. And everyone has an opinion about where to get the best tacos. Nearly 40 million Americans claim Mexican heritage, but a love of their food transcends ethnicity across the US.

It’s a unique intercultural culinary exchange, probably rivaled only by the UK’s appetite for Indian cuisine, which also has its roots in colonialism. By the time the Mexican American War (1846-1848) turned 55% of Mexico into the southwestern quarter of the United States, they were already serving much of the street food we find on today’s menus. The Tamale has origins reaching back to pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican civilizations. The taco, a menu item as versatile as the sandwich, can trace its existence to antique Mexican cookbooks like El Cocinero Mexicano (1831). Other recipes came a little later. The Burrito has several possible origin stories from the early twentieth century, but they all begin in the US-Mexico borderlands.

Even so, many countries share borders without such a culinary crossover. The 49th parallel is an equally significant North American border. Yet, there is little demand for Canadian food in the US. Add to this the racial tension that has characterized much of the history between Mexican Americans and other US communities, and the plot thickens like a good red chili sauce.

America’s love affair with Mexican food developed primarily in the latter half of the 20th century despite racism and culture clash. The Mexican restaurant model familiar across the US owes much of its popularity to the drive and imagination of one Latino entrepreneur. Larry Cano was a WWII veteran turned bartender, restaurant owner, and, finally, millionaire.

 

Larry Cano: Veteran, Restaurateur, and Enchilada Millionaire

Larry Cano was born in 1924 and grew up in East Los Angeles, the son of an immigrant father from Chihuahua, Mexico, and a mother from San Antonio, Texas. His Southern Californian childhood exposed him to racial segregation from a young age. We know little about Larry’s early life, but a Hispanic man of his generation would have faced pressure to represent the best of two cultures that were often at odds with each other.

Chihuahua city panoramic

Mexican Americans of America’s ‘Greatest Generation’ were expected to act more American than White Americans and more Mexican than Mexican Americans. This double pressure created the understandable feeling that they were in an unfair position. After all, geopolitically speaking, many had not even crossed the border; the border had crossed them. Larry would have witnessed the beginnings of the Chicano movement, a Hispanic organization that resisted the pressures of assimilation from White America and fought for Mexican American rights. The antagonism between cultures sparked the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, when American Servicemen, LAPD, and white Angelenos coordinated attacks against Latino Youths. Over five days from June 3 – 8, predominantly in the Mexican neighborhood of East LA, over 150 injuries were reported, and there were 500 arrests.

Whether Larry Cano was in LA during the riots is unclear, but he would undoubtedly have been aware of them. Despite this, he served his country, with which one may assume he had a less-than-ideal relationship, by fighting in not one but two wars. During WWII, Larry flew P-51 Mustangs on Allied campaigns in Europe and North Africa, finishing the war as Captain Larry Cano with the Medal of Victory. After completing a business degree at UCLA, he re-enlisted in the USAF as a fighter pilot during the Korean War (1950-1953) and was decorated again. When his Airforce days were over, he had thoughts of law school, but fate took a twist.

Returning to civilian life, Larry took a job as a bartender at Bali Hai, a Polynesian restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. He discovered a flair for hospitality, and the owner soon promoted him to manager. Later, when the owner passed away, his widow offered to sell him the place. Larry accepted the offer but decided to try something new, sensing that tiki-style restaurants were a fad whose time was up.

Mexican food and fast-food franchises like McDonald’s were gaining popularity in the US. Burritos were as easy to prepare as burgers and soon became a popular short-order dish. Taco stands popped up all over the Western US, from Chicago to San Antonio. As the US demonstrated a taste for Mexican street food, Larry had the idea of elevating the sit-down Mexican food experience. He wanted to bring the dishes from his early life out of the family kitchen and into the culinary world. He wanted to give Americans something they had never experienced.

He described the vision for his restaurant model as a seed planted during a trip to Mexico City while still in the service. Traveling with a friend, they noticed a striking difference in the restaurant service they received according to whether they were in uniform. As Larry later recounted, Maître Ds would sometimes brush them off when dressed as civilians, but they were treated like royalty when they entered in uniform. Larry thought all customers should enjoy this royal treatment, and when he took over his former employer’s establishment, he put this insight into action.

 

The Little Bull Charges Hard

In 1954, Cano opened his ex-employers restaurant as ‘El Torito.’ The Little Bull offered guests a taste of Mexico beyond tacos and burritos (with the spice levels moderated for American tastebuds). After a few rocky months that saw Larry and his family evicted from their home and living in the restaurant for a while, the dining experience he offered proved to be a huge hit.

Within three years, he was opening a second location in Toluca Lake, frequented by Hollywood Stars including Gregory Peck, Lana Turner, John Wayne, Anthony Quinn, Jack Webb, and Walt Disney’s brother Roy. Maybe he was influenced by his proximity to Hollywood. Still, Cano understood how a little drama could enhance customers’ dining experience. Fajita plates sizzled from kitchen to table, arriving in a stream of fragrant smoke. The guacamole was freshly prepared tableside, mixed with herbs and spices by servers dressed in Charro outfits. Customers could watch and smell tortillas being made, and El Torito kept opening new restaurants. Over the following decades, El Torito grew to more than 20 locations as America’s appetite for Mexican food proved insatiable.

Along the way, Larry went on to take credit for inventing the Margarita. In a 2011 interview, he recounted an evening when two young women came to his bar to celebrate a bonus and wanted something like the then-popular frozen Daquiri, but tequila based. His claim that he improvised to please them is plausible considering his background as a bartender, although there are another seven possible origin stories for this cocktail! Larry also claimed to have invented ‘Taco Tuesdays.’ There’s no way to know for sure!

Assortment Of Delicious Authentic Tacos, Birria, Carne Asada, Adobada, Cabeza And Chicharone, Arranged With Lime Slices, Onion, And Roasted Chili Pepper

 

The Rise and Fall of the Enchilada Empire

By the 1970s and 80s, El Torito was so successful that it inspired a series of copycats. Among these was Chi-Chi’s, a Minnesota-based chain established by a Texas restaurateur and a former Green Bay Packers player Max McGee. More notably, at least in retrospect, was Taco Bell, whose founder Glenn Bell approached Larry for advice. By 1977, Mexican-style eateries took in $1 billion, or 2% of American dining dollars spent that year. This grew to $3 billion in revenues by 1981, accounting for 4% of total US restaurant sales. In 1982, Time Magazine lauded Larry Cano alongside his contemporaries for a noteworthy piece entitled “The Enchilada Millionaires.”

Larry also personally mentored employees who went on to achieve great success. Among them is Don Myers, owner of Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen (Brea, CA), Ivan Calderon of Taco Mesa/Taco Rosa (Irvine, CA), and David Wilhelm of Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern (San Diego/Dana Point, CA). These successful restaurateurs started as busboys and servers at El Torito in their early days. In the late 1970s, Cano also worked alongside Michael M. Casey, who became CFO at Starbucks.

In 1976 Larry divested his 20-restaurant empire to W. R. Grace and Company for $20 million. Following the sale, he assumed the role of President and worked on driving expansion. This arrangement lasted ten years until a leveraged buyout in 1986 when Grace’s mother company filed for bankruptcy and rebranded.

Larry enjoyed a proud and prosperous retirement, with his story being told at length in publications such as OC Weekly in 2011 and by Gustavo Arellano in his 2013 book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Cano passed away on December 10th, 2014, at 90 years old, surrounded by his family.

He left the world a tastier, more exciting place, and diners owe a ‘muchas gracias’ to Larry Jesus Cano.

 

Edited by Michael Moss

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