Adios to the Cal-Mex combo
The news was met with barely a whimper. Despite its long and prominent role as one of the chief arbiters of U.S. Mexican food tastes, when El Torito (or, more precisely, its Cypress-based parent company) declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this month, no one seemed to care. Why? Probably because today’s Californians were too busy eating tacos de lengua and sipping horchata at the taqueria down the street. El Torito? If people thought about it at all these days, it was usually as that place they went for the company Christmas party.
The fall of Real Mex Foods symbolizes more than just another victim of our Great Recession, though. El Torito played a major role in one of California’s most influential exports: Cal-Mex cuisine, the galaxy of Mexican dishes that end up combined and numbered on menus, long derided by purists as somehow not being authentic.
In 1954, World War II vet and East Los Angeles resident Larry Cano streamlined the tradition at his first El Torito in Encino, toning down the mexicanidad enough to attract the hundreds of thousands of new Californians eager to try Mexican food. From here, Cano created an empire that spread his brand of cookery across the United States, with a chain of 248 restaurants at the peak of El Torito’s popularity during the late 1980s. Along with its many imitators, the chain introduced Cal-Mex to areas whose only previous exposure was fast-food tacos and canned tamales.
It’s easy to dismiss the genre — the stratum of yellow cheese melted on refried beans, the “Spanish” rice on the side, the enchiladas drowning in a sauce that tastes like the can it came from, the limp, unnecessary salad and the mountain of sour cream (with its requisite olive crown) topping it all — as gastronomic heresy. But deconstructing these combo plates tells us something about who we are and where we came from. And while Cal-Mex still resonates across the United States, El Torito’s bankruptcy filing heralds our native cuisine’s inevitable disappearance in its birthplace and, eventually, from the national scene.
Generations of Southern Californians have patronized Cal-Mex restaurants when we wanted an ethnic experience more refined than Taco Bell yet more accessible than a drive to Tijuana. At such restaurants — El Cholo, El Coyote, La Golondrina to name the most iconic — we plugged into our collective memory of Southern California’s Mexican past and present. The bevy of carne asada meals is a reminder of the cattle kingdoms of the Californios; the predominance of flour tortillas, the contribution of the Sonorans who greatly influenced Los Angeles’ early days.
Chile rellenos, tostadas, hard-shelled tacos, margaritas, enchiladas, chile colorado — platters once considered alien — seamlessly enmeshed themselves into our eating habits over the decades, brought forth by successive streams of Mexican migrants. And the atmosphere, of course, was Olvera Street writ large — murals depicting bucolic ranchos, waitresses in billowy, flowery blouses, strolling musicians or strummed guitars broadcast over speakers, and more saguaro cacti sprouting in the corners than you’d ever see driving between Tucson and Phoenix.
That type of eatery remains the template for Mexican restaurant casual dining in much of the United States. But here, it’s antiquated, no longer hip. Young people follow the tweets of luxe loncheras or rave about Chipotle, a San Francisco-by-way-of-Denver invader endangering our indigenous burritos; Mexican immigrants patronize their own regional restaurants.
Growing up, Cal-Mex was a food that was downright foreign to me; in my adult years, I treat it as an alimentary artifact of the region a la chicken dumplings and Clifton’s. Whenever I do get a hankering for a sizzling fajitas platter (an item El Torito stole from Texas), I always notice how the customers at these places are mostly middle-aged, Anglo and Latino alike — people who grew up with the cuisine — and their reluctant children and grandchildren who spike the watery salsa with Tapatio.
The decline of Cal-Mex is sad but it was predestined: Southern Californians have continually embraced, then shed, food trends in favor of new ones. The tamale wagons of the late 1890s and early 20th century gave way to food trucks; the recipe collections of churches and women’s civic groups went from featuring dozens of ways to prepare tamale pie to cribbing from the oeuvre of celebrity chef Rick Bayless. The main remnant of the Southwestern cuisine movement that was the rage during the 1980s are blue tortilla chips and the Southwestern chicken salad.
We shouldn’t mourn Cal-Mex’s fall, however. It served its purpose, and already other Southern California Mexican traditions are taking its place as national trendsetters: Korean tacos, tequila and mezcal bars, paletas and more. Like the citrus industry of yore, Cal-Mex will fade slowly into our collective, romanticized memory as something better than it actually was. If you’re ever in doubt, though, ask yourself: Tortilla soup? Or birria? Not even close.
Gustavo Arellano is managing editor of the OC Weekly and author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” out in April.
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