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El Torito (Spanish for "the little bull") is a Mexican restaurant chain, consisting of 69 restaurants which are located primarily in California. Some of the restaurants are located in Oregon, Arizona, and overseas. El Torito is one of several Mexican cuisine restaurant chains operated by Real Mex Restaurants. The executive chef is Pepe Lopez.
Founded in 1954, El Torito claims to be "a pioneer in the California full service Mexican casual dining restaurant segment."
El Torito was founded by Larry J. Cano, who gives the restaurant credit for popularizing the margarita in the United States. Cano served several tours in Europe and in Korea, got a business degree and worked as a bartender. When the bar's owner died, the widow asked Cano if he wanted it.
The bar itself Cano felt was popular with veterans but had a limited lifespan. He brought his own Mexican cooking to the bar and it became the first El Torito, named - theoretically - based on the large clay bowl with a bull painted on it. Cano hired local Mexican cooks and asked them to cook genuine Mexican food with an eye for mainstream. Success was not immediate and for a time Cano was evicted from his home and lived in the restaurant.
However within three years the company was opening additional locations and movie stars were frequenting the establishment. The company continued to grow with a focus on upscale communities. At one point, the chain bought more tequila than any other. By 1976 he had opened 20 locations before selling the business to W. R. Grace and Company, a multinational chemical company looking to diversify, for about $20 million. They hired him as the President with a directive for rapid expansion. At one point 54 stores were opened in a single year.
Grace sold its restaurants in a leveraged buyout in 1986. The resulting firm, Restaurant Enterprises Group (REG), filed for bankruptcy in 1993. REF was acquired out of bankruptcy in 1994 by Foodmaker, who renamed itself Family Restaurants, then Koo Koo Roo Enterprises, then Prandium. In 2000, Acapulco bought El Torito from Prandium. Acapulco renamed itss parent company to Real Mex Restaurants in 2004 and moved the headquarters to Cypress.
On October 3, 2011, Real Mex Restaurants filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and announced that it was putting itself up for sale citing the poor economy as a reason. No plans have been announced to close restaurants or layoff staff. It was acquired by a group of its noteholders in a bankruptcy auction in 2012.