From Tough Guy to Taquero, Danny Trejo Spills on His Journey to Becoming a Restaurateur
Actor and activist Danny Trejo’s path from professional bad guy to successful restaurateur.
On the big screen, L.A.-born actor Danny Trejo plays a machete-swinging, motorcycle-riding bad guy. In real life only the last part isn’t true. The star of Spy Kids, From Dusk Till Dawn, and the Machete series is also a drug counselor, prison reform activist (he got sober in the penitentiary over 50 years ago), and now presides over the restaurant group Trejo’s Tacos, which specializes in modernized Mexican-inspired dishes with vegan and gluten-free options (margarita-flavored donuts included). His new book Trejo’s Tacos: Recipes and Stories from L.A. (co-authored with Sunset executive editor Hugh Garvey) is a love letter to Los Angeles and a blueprint for eating healthfully and deliciously.
How did a guy like you end up with your mug on the side of a bunch of restaurants and a donut shop?
My mom was a great cook and owning a restaurant was sort of a dream of hers. I was working on a movie with producer Ash Shah. He served his crew much better craft services than other guys. He noticed I was really into the food and asked me if I wanted to open a restaurant. I joked “Yeah, and I’d call it Trejo’s Tacos.” He wasn’t joking.
What inspired you to offer so many healthy options? My son got our family eating healthy and once you start you see the benefits. Our country is going through an obesity epidemic and we have to get our diets back on track. So much of what goes wrong with the human body comes from our diet. I do a lot of work with autistic children and they say kids with autism don’t do well with gluten, and I want to give them a nice place to go. You can come to our restaurants between 5 and 7 and chances are you’re going to see a family with an autistic kid out having a great family dinner out on the town.
You’ve been all over the West shooting movies, but you’ve pretty much spent your entire life in L.A. What is that keeps you coming back? The Western states are so eclectic and culturally beautiful. I love Albuquerque, Las Vegas, and San Antonio. They’re heavily Hispanic but there are so many cultures you can’t say it’s just this one or the other. But L.A. is my hometown: I’ve watched every building since City Hall go up. We used to ride the streetcars when we were little. It’s one of the greatest cities in the world and only getting better. Now if we could just fix the traffic on the 405 freeway.
When you were a kid you were sent to juvenile forestry camp. Did that change the way you saw nature?
Back when I used to get in trouble with the law they used to joke: “Send him to camp!” They were talking about juvenile forestry camp where we’d go and learn to fight fires. Being in the woods you really learn the rules of how to survive: If you get lost walk up not down. Stay in place. Always pack a lighter and water. Now if I want to get out in the open air I love fishing. We used to fish at Hansen Dam. I went deep-sea fishing in Cabo San Lucas. I caught a bluefin tuna and a swordfish. I let them go. They were too beautiful to keep.
As part of your service work, you speak at schools. What do you tell kids to keep them on the straight path?
Drugs and alcohol will ruin your life. Education is the key. The biggest problem with kids is, one: It’s impossible to get their attention because they have none. Two, you have to keep their attention, which is impossible because of number one. And three, you gotta be cool. If you’re 10 years older than them, you’re not cool. The blessing that the good Lord has given me is that when I walk onto the campus I have everyone‘s attention.