Actor Danny Trejo is better known for his movie roles wielding a machete or a gun than a chef’s knife. The acclaimed actor, 78, has starred in dozens of films, including Desperado, Heat, From Dusk Till Dawn, Con Air and Grindhouse — but the Los Angeles native has also been building a restaurant empire. Trejo’s Tacos, which he opened in L.A. in 2016, has expanded to five locations, including Trejo’s Cantina in Hollywood, and he also sells sweets at Trejo’s Coffee & Donuts. And now he’s releasing his second cookbook, Trejo’s Cantina: Cocktails, Snacks & Amazing Nonalcoholic Drinks From the Heart of Hollywood (April 2023).
Cantinas — small Mexican bars that serve drinks and food — played a prominent role in Trejo’s childhood. He would visit them after attending church on Sunday and hang out with his dad and uncles sharing spreads of unfussy snacks and talking about life. Trejo experienced drug addiction and eventually served time in prison, but the times he spent at cantinas were a respite from his troubled life. Today, Trejo celebrates these traditional Mexican spots and gives homage to the people who inspired his recipes, including his familia and even those who served with him in prison.
The book touches on his life on screen and behind bars, his sobriety and why cantina food is fun. A natural storyteller, each chapter of Trejo’s life sets the stage for the recipes and offers guiding principles on how to cook with ingenuity and gratitude. The book contains colorful anecdotes, tips for stocking a pantry with Mexican classics and ingredients for delicious booze-free cocktails — plus the secrets to recreating quintessential cantina vibes for toda la familia.
AARP spoke to Trejo about his cooking inspirations, how film and television led him to the restaurant business and the importance of living a healthy lifestyle. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Cook With Danny
Danny Trejo shared three recipes from Trejo’s Cantina for AARP members to try:
Topped with spicy-savory chorizo and served with crunchy tortilla chips, this is a knockout-delicious appetizer.
This version turns up the heat with a combination of fresh and pickled jalapeños and hot sauce.
This recipe combines tequila and mezcal in equal parts, which allows for the subtle flavors of the lavender to not be overwhelmed.
How did you get started cooking?
Actually, in prison, we learned how to make spreads out of nothing. You got a Top Ramen and put bologna in it. Everybody would go to the yard on Saturday, Sunday, for the guys who didn’t have visits and we’d have a spread. Everybody would bring their dish and you would sit down and have this spread. It was kind of familia, you know, kind of camaradas — a real warm time. And it’s still the same. For me, when I go to the cantina or when I go to one of (my) restaurants, it’s the same as like a house. It’s like, “welcome to my spread.”
How did your mother inspire your role in the kitchen?
In the ’50s women didn’t work, especially in Latino families. But my mom was a great cook and wanted to open a restaurant one day. I would say, “Mom, write this recipe down [for] when we open our restaurant.” [My dad] would actually get upset because it would be unheard of, right? “You’ve got a kitchen right here. You don’t need to open a restaurant!” he’d say. That would have been a no-no. So a lot of times my mom would actually write recipes down and put them in a little jar so I’d have them.
How did you break into the restaurant business?
It’s so funny, because everything good that has happened to me has happened as a direct result of helping someone else. I do this movie, Bad Ass, and meet one of the producers, Ash Shah, who saw that I eat good food and he goes, “Danny, why don’t you open a restaurant?” And I go, “Trejo’s Tacos!” On the third movie, Bad Asses on the Bayou, he brought me a business plan and Gloria [my agent] said it was a no-brainer. So all of a sudden, we opened up the restaurant in La Brea and it just blew up. And then a year later, we opened up one in Hollywood [Trejo’s Cantina] and now we’ve got five restaurants and a donut shop [Trejo’s Donuts & Coffee] on Santa Monica and Highland. And then we’re gonna open up another venue like House of Blues in Detroit.
What can we expect from “Trejo’s Cantina?”
One of the things we did in Trejo’s Cantina is we started nonalcoholic recipes, because I don’t drink. … One of the things that I tried to do was make every recipe as simple as possible. Because you got to remember, a lot of the recipes that my abuelita (grandmother) and my mom had were like no measurements. And I’d say, “How do you know that?” Well, you learn.
Now that this is your second cookbook, how was the process different?
You know, for me, the process is “just sit still.” The hardest thing for me to do is sit still. So we [Hugh Garvey, cowriter] would record stories about cantina life and childhood while on Zooms, and then I got a lot of the recipes written down — my mom wrote them all down for me. And so a lot of them are really simple.
You’re very involved with local community outreach. How do you connect your restaurants to the neighborhood?
All our staff are second chances; they’ve all been in some kind of trouble, or single moms, or single dads, guys that have gotten out of jail and proven themselves. … We’ve never had a problem. … Dignity, that’s the one thing you don’t have in prison. You lose all sense of dignity, and you hide it with anger and hate.
You were on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.” Did that experience help connect the dots with your heritage, cooking and restaurants?
When they first did [the ancestry on the show], they went all the way back to the 15th century, the conquistadores and the Aztecs — that’s where my family started. All I knew was Papa Lelo, my grandmother’s dad. That’s as far as I went back. ... I started asking my aunts, but most of that generation is gone. I have one uncle left, my uncle Rudy, and he’s living in Tennessee, but my family came from Monterrey, Mexico. That was one of the [things I learned] from the show. We found out we had 3,000 acres. ... I’ve always been proud to be Mexican, but now I got history.
What are your favorite quintessential L.A. spots?
My favorite restaurant is a place called Los Tres Hermanos on Sepulveda and Plummer Street. I know them —they’re three brothers and they’re awesome. The dad started it, and it’s really great Mexican food. Then there’s a place called Musso & Frank Grill, which is one of the oldest restaurants in Hollywood. Every time you got out of prison you go to Musso & Frank’s because that was the spot. That’s where all the movie stars used to eat.
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