Larry J. Cano, who took over a defunct Polynesian restaurant in Encino in 1954 and turned it into the first El Torito restaurant, building it into a worldwide chain that fed a growing appetite for Mexican food, died Wednesday at his home in Corona del Mar. He was 90.
"He was a pioneer in making Mexican food mainstream," Lee Healy, a former assistant to Cano for many years, said Monday in confirming his death from pancreatic cancer.
A World War II veteran and former bartender, Cano found success curbing spiciness and catering to popular tastes.
"You have to do what you have to do," he told the OC Weekly in 2011. "It would be ridiculous to have spicy food for the first time someone tries Mexican food and kill them. We're talking about the masses."
He was operating 22 El Torito locations when he sold the chain to New York conglomerate W.R. Grace & Co. in 1978. He stayed on for a decade as president, overseeing its expansion into a nationwide chain with 190 restaurants and annual sales of more than $425 million by 1987.
In 1988 he stepped down as president but remained in the business, operating several specialty restaurants, including Cano's in Orange County.