How does someone known for his menacing demeanor and sketchy past convince the world he’s a nice guy? As with so many difficult questions, the answer is “make tacos.”
For actor Danny Trejo, making tacos soon led to a string of restaurants and now a cookbook, “Trejo’s Tacos,” re-creating the dishes he describes as “the sometimes healthy, Mexican-adjacent, vegan-ish, always delicious food we serve at Trejo’s.”
Although Trejo has appeared in more than 300 movies (he jokes that many of his early roles were listed in the credits as “Bad Guy #1,” “Scary Guy #2” or just “Tough Guy”), taking a starring role in the kitchen gave him an opportunity to fuse the Tex-Mex dishes he grew up eating with the health-conscious food of the film industry.
“My mom was a killer cook,” he wrote. “We would have these elaborate, unbelievable meals: chicken mole, carne asada and enchiladas stacked high like they do in Texas, where my mom was from.”
At Trejo’s restaurants, those classics are often served with surprising side dishes that swap out the traditional rice and beans for lighter, greener sides such as Brussels sprouts and kale.
Trejo dresses roasted Brussels sprouts with a red chimichurri sauce he describes as “spicy, tangy and smoky, and great on broccoli and cauliflower and all those other vegetables we used to hate but now love when they’re roasted.” The smoky notes in the sauce come from chipotle chiles, which are smoked jalapenos and smoked paprika, sometimes sold as pimenton.
Chipotle peppers also turn up in his version of Mexican street corn, which is topped with popcorn for extra crunch.
“You might notice that chipotle chiles in adobo sauce show up in a lot of our recipes,” he wrote. “That’s because they’re so damn delicious, adding an incredible smoky-hot flavor to everything you mix them with.”
He recommends starting with a little less than the recipe calls for and then adding more after a taste test, since chipotles are among the hottest of peppers. For more flavor and less heat, he suggests scooping out the red adobo sauce the peppers are canned in and using the equivalent amount, since it will be less spicy than the peppers themselves.
Guacamole gets an L.A.-style makeover that might have left Trejo’s Texas-born mother shaking her head. Along with the expected ingredients of fresh serrano peppers, onion and lime juice, Trejo adds a drizzle of olive oil and tops the bowl with chopped toasted pistachios.
“It’s all about contrasting textures and flavors,” he wrote. “Our guacamole is special because it’s got so much more going on than your usual guac.”
To play up the texture contrasts, Trejo’s guacamole mashes half the avocados and leaves half the avocados in bigger chunks.
Trejo has augmented his California restaurants with several donut shops, and the cookbook includes a chapter on making donuts, ranging from basic to a margarita-glazed donut and a tutorial on churros.
The book also is full of colorful tales of Trejo’s checkered past and his meandering path to the film and culinary success he now enjoys.
“I say this a lot, and Trejo’s Tacos is proof of it: It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.”