Does art imitate tacos or do tacos imitate art? In Los Angeles, the lines are getting blurry as fuck. As if the City of Angels didn't have enough damn taquerias to choose from, we now have one that is owned by the grandfather of Mexican-American machismo in Hollywood, Danny Trejo.
Trejo's Tacos sits on the corner of La Brea Avenue and Olympic Boulevard, smack-dab in the middle of the city's Mid-Wilshire neighborhood—not East Los Angeles and not South-Central, as many people would probably assume if they had heard of such celebrity-backed taco venture. Naturally, the only way to enjoy his health-Mex variation on tacos—including a surprisingly tasty fried Jidori chicken "taco" on a butter lettuce leaf instead of a corn tortilla, and another taco stuffed with fried tofu—is al fresco and communal-style, with Rise Against blasting from the outdoor speakers. You can wash it all down some kombucha on tap or date-sweetened horchata, too.
As part of Got Milk's Spicy Loves Milk campaign and its proximity to Cinco de Mayo, I got a chance to sit down with the 71-year-old Echo Park-native in his restaurant and eat every single taco on his menu (and wash it all down with a shotglass of full-fat milk). We discussed which taco Machete would eat, why he is still not using handmade tortillas for his tacos, and how John Cusack can probably kick your ass.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Danny. How are you doing today? Danny Trejo: I'm great, man. I've just been tasting tacos all day, and they are delicious. [Laughs.] I've eaten lots of tacos.
Are you tired of your own tacos yet? Absolutely not. My favorite is the fried chicken, the pulled pork, and the brisket taco. [Laughs].
I see that it has no tortilla, and that a piece of lettuce is used instead. What is up with that? That is the health part of all of this. It is our version of "protein-style." [Laughs.]
How the hell did you get involved in the restaurant industry? I told Ash R. Shaw, the producer of Bad Ass, "Why don't we open up a restaurant?" I said jokingly, "Why not Trejo's Tacos?" We then shot Bad Ass 2: Bad Asses, and then Bad Asses 3: Bad Asses on the Bayou with Danny Glover. Then after that, Ash came back with a business plan. I showed it to my agent and my secretary, who are business-minded. They says, "You can't go wrong." So, here we are. [Laughs.]
Why tacos and not, say, pizza or burgers? It is a lot easier to stay on the healthy train with tacos. All tacos are gluten-free, basically, and there are a lot of vegetarian tacos already. With burgers and pizza, there is a lot more bread involved. Our chickens have never been in a cage, you know. We try to stay as healthy as we can.
I've read that it was your momma's dream to open up a restaurant. Is this true? It was my mom's dream, but in the 50s, in a Latino family, el hombre trabajaba y la mujer se quedaba en la cocina. ("The man worked and the woman stayed in the kitchen.") [He says this in a deeply, extra-raspy voice and lifts up his arms.] Every time my mom would talk about opening up a restaurant, my dad would respond, "Ahi tienes tu cocina!" ("Your kitchen is there!") [Laughs.]
Now, I'm sure my mom is yelling at my mom in heaven, "Te dije!" ("I told you!")
I remember one of the first things I remember hearing about your restaurant before you even opened was your tofu taco. What is the story behind that? You know? They gave me a taco once, and I was like, "What is this?" They told me it was tofu, and I was like, "What?!" I told them to give me another one but to not tell anybody. [Laughs.] Even the carnivorous people like our tofu taco.
What do you think of the restaurant industry so far? I enjoy it. I enjoy being hands-on and meeting people. Sometimes I grab plates and take it to the kitchen. It is a lot of fun.
How did your crazy-ass life story play into the Trejo's Tacos menu? Well, I was born in Echo Park but I got in trouble when I was around 12, so they sent me to Texas. I stayed there for three years but I escaped and came to California to live with my mom and dad. I grew up in Pacoima with them in the San Fernando Valley. My mom was from Marfa, Texas, and my dad was from San Antonio. All of my family is from Texas but I am the only one who is from Califas.
My grandfather was so sure that Texas was going to secede from the Union in the 40s, he made all of the pregnant women in my family stay in Texas so that the babies can be born here and be citizens of Texas, not the Union. My dad met my mom out here and nobody knew that she was pregnant with me, so I was the only one born out here in California.
I told our chef—don't ever call him a cook—how my mom made food, and they came up with some pretty good stuff.
On that historic note: Cal-Mex vs. Tex-Mex. Pick a side. Cal-Mex. I love Cal-Mex, I'm from Califas! [Laughs.]
I've noticed that you're not using handmade tortillas for your tacos. Is there a reason for that? These are made right in East LA and brought over. I think in our other locations, we will be making them on-site. The problem here is that the space is too small.
How did you get involved with this Got Milk? campaign? Well, I've always said that the best thing in the world to go with a spicy taco is a glass of milk. The project is going great.
[We proceed to take a bite of each taco and take a shot of milk.]
Why did you take this health angle on your tacos? In LA, you have to be a little more vegetarian-friendly. [Laughs.] One of the biggest reasons we took our approach to tacos is because in the entertainment field, inevitably someone will be vegan or gluten-free. We serve everybody here. It really works. I've had couples come up to me and tell me, "Thank you! My husband loves meat but I'm vegan, and we can both eat here!"
[Our interview meal is interrupted by some older Latinos walking in front of the restaurant wearing baggy pants, flannel shirts, dark sunglasses, and tattoos. Trejo briefly leaves to high-five it, pound it, and comes back to the table.]
Which taco would your character Machete eat? Our carne asada. [Laughs.]
How about Razor Charlie?
Has John Cusack come in to try your tacos yet? Cusack is awesome. He is my pal. He trains with this guy named "Bennie the Jet," who is this five-time world champion kickboxer. People don't know it but John Cusack can kick ass. [Laughs.] He hasn't came in yet but he will be down here soon. We are opening up another Trejo's Tacos in Hollywood and we will have a star-studded grand opening for that location.
[We are quickly interrupted again by Trejo's cousin, Robert Rodriguez, who hugs him and says hi to us.]
What is your goal with Trejo's Tacos? World domination, absolutely. I want Trejo's Tacos all over the world. [Laughs.] I was in Bulgaria doing a film, and someone came to me and showed me a photo of Trejo's Tacos. The person asked me, "Are you going to bring one here?"
Anything else you would like our MUNCHIES readers to know before they come to Trejo's Tacos? When you come here, make sure to try our street-style corn. It is absolutely delicious. [He proceeds to eat a bowl of it.]
Thank you for speaking and eating tacos with me.