When Chef Pepe Lopez of El Torito walks into a restaurant dining room, guests often tell him: I wasn’t sure if you were real.
That statement has become an unfortunate metaphor for the chain, founded more than 50 years ago in Southern California. Lopez, a brand ambassador whose images are frequently seen on promotional fliers, is the heart of the operation. But over the years, his culinary creativity has been stifled as El Torito’s Cypress-based parent company, Real Mex Restaurants, struggled amid a brutal economy and lackluster leadership.
Having lost its authenticity and the confidence of consumers, Real Mex, whose other concepts include Chevys and Acapulco, filed for bankruptcy protection last year. On Tuesday, a group of private investors — Tennenbaum Capital Partners, Z Capital Partners and J.P. Morgan Investment Management — will officially take over the nation’s largest Mexican casual dining company.