Danny Trejo on His Taco Empire, Restaurant Pet Peeves, and Feeding Los Angeles

"You have to have good food. My name was only going to get us so far."

Trejo working the takeout window

Courtesy of Danny Trejo

We’re dedicating our September features to food and drink. One of our favorite parts of travel is the joy of trying a new cocktail, snagging a reservation at a great restaurant, or supporting a local wine region. Now, to celebrate the flavors that teach us about the world, we put together a collection of tasty features, including chefs’ top tips for eating well on the roadhow to choose an ethical food tour, the wonders of ancient indigenous cooking traditions, and a chat with Hollywood taco impresario Danny Trejo.

Some actors just have an unforgettable presence about them, and Danny Trejo certainly fits that bill. Even those who have only watched a handful of films or television series since the late ‘80s would instantly recognize Trejo's grisly mustachioed face, heavily tattooed frame, and long black hair. Especially if it was staring back at you from the other side of your peephole.

“Sometimes, when we get an order, and it’s close by, instead of sending Grubhub, I just take it myself in my ’65 Buick Riviera. I’ve had people slam the door on me. I guess I’ve played too many bad guys,” says the character actor known for "Spy Kids," "Machete," "Breaking Bad," "From Dusk Till Dawn," and "Sons of Anarchy," who, in 2016 at the age of 72, decided to reinvent himself as a restauranteur. “Mostly, they can’t believe it. They say, ‘Is it really you?’ When they finally open the door, I thank them for the business and find out what they like, what we can do better.” 

The personal touch doesn’t end with the occasional delivery, either. The enthusiastic frontman of what has become a well-respected food and drink empire in Los Angeles does far more than allow some suits to slap his name and likeness on the sides of buildings. 77 years old with no interest in retiring, Trejo has a reputation for dropping into the various locations of the fast-casual Trejo’s Tacos or the full-service Trejo’s Cantina in Hollywood once or twice a week if he isn’t on set or out of town. He's known to mingle with fans, work the door, dip into the kitchen to motivate the staff, and taste the food for quality. He meets with partners monthly to discuss new menu items, expansion plans (there are ghost kitchens in Northern California, Miami, and Chicago), and potential product lines. The dedication has certainly paid off: Trejo’s Cerveza launched a few years ago, a Trejo’s Hard Seltzer is expected to drop next month, and both an energy drink and a second cookbook are in the works. 

He especially enjoys days when he swings by Trejo’s Coffee & Donuts, where many pastries, including the Quinceañera, Margarita, Lowrider, and Abuelita, are inspired by his Mexican heritage and East LA upbringing. “Except now they know I’m only allowed one pineapple fritter," laughs Trejo. "I’ve tried to go at like seven in the morning and then again right before close to sneak another one, but they’re like, ‘You’ve already been here today.'"

“The good Lord has some sense of humor. He gives me a donut shop, and then they tell me I'm borderline diabetic," the sweet tooth-having Trejo jokes. "But I'm a lot closer to the end than the beginning, so I'm going to enjoy the hell out of it. I love good food. I love feeding people. I love being alive. That’s just the way it is.”

Trejo recently sat down with TripSavvy to talk about his second act, his go-to hometown spots, his favorite foodie destinations, the importance of being a role model, and the cardinal restaurant sin he won't forgive or forget.

Trejo's Tacos cookbook cover

Courtesy of Danny Trejo

Your story was already inspiring. You left a life of drugs, crime, and jail behind you only to score a steady, long, and fulfilling gig in Hollywood working with the likes of Robert Rodriguez, Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino, and Mike Judge. You then made the decision late in life to jump into a notoriously risky industry. How? Why?

Everything good that has happened to me in life has happened as a direct result of helping someone else out. It’s true of acting and this. My agent Gloria wanted me to do this low-budget film, "Bad Ass," as a favor to a director. I thought I’d done my quota, and I was looking for a good payday. Not to be chauvinistic, but women have a way of telling you to go straight to hell without saying it when they know what’s right for you and you give them grief. So I caved. And she was right, of course, because it turned into a trilogy, and I made eight times the money. 

I also met producer Ash Shah on it. I was like 70 at the time. I wasn’t eating fast food or processed food. He asked about it, and I told him that I just really liked to eat. He said, “You should open a restaurant.” Jokingly, I said, “Sure. Trejo’s Tacos.” Two movies later, he brought me a business plan. There was no killing on the first page, so it didn’t feel like my kind of reading. I gave it to Gloria, and she gave me the look again. So I wouldn’t be in the restaurant business if we hadn't done that favor for that director. Listen to your agent.

But it’s one thing to say you’re going to do it and another to be open and still expanding five years later. What’s the secret?

You have to have good food. Or people won’t come back. My name was only going to get us so far. 

Did you always like to cook?

No, not always. When my kids were growing up, I would buy the Hungry Man pancakes, the kind you cook in the microwave. I’d make them sit in the living room. I’d throw flour in the air and bang the pans. Then I’d come out with this beautiful, perfect stack, and they thought I was the best chef in the world—until they found the box.

Danny Trejo of Trejo's Tacos

Courtesy of Danny Trejo

With the pandemic, the last year and a half has been notoriously challenging for restaurants, especially in L.A., where restaurants were closed for dining in. How did you get through it?

Honestly, I think the good lord let us stay open during this pandemic when so many places closed, some right next to us because we never stopped feeding the homeless or going to hospitals. I put my masks on and went to the communities I grew up in and tried to feed as many people as I could. And just talk to people. Thankfully people like our food, and we could afford to help. I know we are lucky. People who supported us and other restaurants and gave us a break when things weren’t perfect were a blessing. No one is out of the woods yet, so keep going to your favorite places. 

Is it important to you to be a role model?

Yes. It's a responsibility all of us should take seriously, especially if you are famous. I believe in second chances. I wouldn’t be where I am without them. The thing that is killing our community’s relationships, our families, our kids is machismo. I speak at prisons and juvenile halls and try to get them to realize the reason many of them are there is because somewhere along the line, somebody told them they’re supposed to be tough guys. I want to show them they can turn it around and [that they] can’t be afraid to ask for help. Or cry. Or like kittens. 

Danny Trejo delivering food in the pandemic

Courtesy of Danny Trejo

Is L.A. the best place outside of Mexico for Mexican food?

Mexican food is a way of life here. You find very few people that won't say it's their favorite food. First, we're so close to the border. Secondly, a lot of the chefs here are from Mexico, or their family is from Mexico. That’s true even outside of Mexican restaurants. I love to go into a sushi restaurant and see all Mexicans behind the bar. We have access to the best ingredients, and we also have a lot of chefs making Mexican in healthier ways, like without lard and using Beyond meat. 

What would you recommend people order the first time they go to Trejo’s?  

Nobody can match our nachos or our guacamole. We’ve got steak, carnitas, and shrimp. I get a half order because the plate is so big, and I put eggs over easy on top to have breakfast and lunch together. We take requests. Our standard answer is yes, we can. I like to make people feel like they are in my home. And we're dog friendly. People in L.A. love that.

Mexican food is a way of life here. You find very few people that won't say it's their favorite food.

Where do you take out-of-towners when they visit?

The first place is always The Pantry downtown. Big portions, it’s open 24 hours a day, great breakfast. Classic LA. If they want to dine, I take them to Musso and Frank. It’s one of the oldest restaurants in town, and it’s where all the big movie guys met. You can still feel Marilyn Monroe in that place. 

Besides L.A., do you have other favorite food cities?  

Don't go to Italy and try to lose weight. That’s some of the best food in the world. And the portions. The hors d'oeuvres alone are a meal. Then comes pasta and bread and then the main. The bread is so good you forget the butter. The guy would say, “Dessert?” I was like, “No, give me a pillow and a couch.”

Mexico City is great for a lot of reasons, including the food. But also the culture and the buildings. Going there is like going back in history.

I love sushi. Wherever I am, I ask where the best sushi is in town. It’s funny that some of the best sushi I ever had was in Arizona, of all places. It came in daily, and they gave me big portions because they couldn’t save it.

Do you have a restaurant pet peeve, something that would make you never eat somewhere again?

I have to have a clean restroom. I will not ever go back to a place if the restroom was dirty because I can’t stop imagining the chef hanging out in there. If that is bad, what is going on in the kitchen? In my restaurants, someone goes in every 30 minutes to make sure it is spotless. And there better be soap.

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