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Danny Trejo: ‘I was a tough ex-con eating cookies with his mom!’

Danny Trejo (Danny Trejo)
Danny Trejo (Danny Trejo)

Danny Trejo knows he’s being watched. Glancing over his shoulder, the 79-year-old flashes a wide, toothy smile at the women a couple of tables down from us who’ve just clocked the presence of the baddest of all badasses. ‘No way!’ they exhale in unison. Trejo turns back to me, still grinning, and digs a tortilla chip into a mound of guacamole studded with pistachios. ‘Someone once told me I was the most recognisable Latino in the world,’ he says. ‘I went, wait, am I ugly or what?’ He erupts into a throaty laugh that reverberates like gravel in a cement mixer, then shakes his head. ‘Nah, you’ve just been in a lot of movies, homes.’

To be fair, it’s hard to stay incognito when your face is plastered all over the walls. We’re having lunch at Trejo’s Cantina, a bright, colourful taco joint in the heart of Hollywood, with a full bar and a recurring motif in its choice of artwork. Trejo’s moustachioed mug stares out from hot-sauce bottles, staff T-shirts and the sign above the door. In the toilets, murals depict just some of his more than 400 film, television and video game roles: thrusting open a trench coat full of blades as Mex-ploitation action hero Machete, taking the mic in From Dusk Till Dawn, his severed head riding across the desert on a tortoise in Breaking Bad. If you didn’t recognise Danny Trejo in this place, you never would.

The quintessential screen tough guy opened his first taqueria a few miles south of here on La Brea Avenue in 2016, and now has five Trejo’s Tacos locations dotted across Los Angeles. Next he has his sights set on London, specifically a prime spot on Portobello Road. He fell in love with the city a decade ago while shooting Muppets Most Wanted. ‘I stayed there for about four weeks,’ he remembers. ‘Me and Ray Liotta walked all over. It was a joy. People are so friendly, especially because me and Ray are pretty recognisable. We went to see Buckingham Palace and were complete tourists. But both me and Ray said: “They need some Mexican food here!”’

Danny Trejo
Danny Trejo

Trejo seems like the right guy to deliver it. He got into the restaurant business largely by accident, while following his mantra. ‘Everything good that has happened to me has happened as a direct result of helping someone else,’ he tells me several times during our meal. In this case, it was helping out a director who needed a big name to get his vigilante action flick Bad Ass made. On set, the producer noticed that Trejo was swerving the fast food provided, instead bringing in his own tuna salads from home. ‘I don’t eat processed food,’ says Trejo. ‘He saw that and said: “Why don’t you open a restaurant?” Jokingly, I said: “Trejo’s Tacos!”’ The next thing Trejo knew, the producer was handing him a business plan. ‘I looked at it and thought: “Well, there’s no killing in the first page…”’ he jokes. ‘But my agent said it was a no brainer.’

Inspired by its owner’s tastes, Trejo’s Tacos positions itself as a healthier take on classic Mexican cooking, with plenty of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options and inventive twists like those tree nuts in the guac. ‘In a Mexican household, it’s like: “Put a bit more lard in it!”’ chuckles Trejo. ‘So we changed the recipes a little bit. We made it a point to make absolutely healthy food.’ He recommends its award-winning roasted cauliflower taco, as well as one made with braised jackfruit that has the satisfying texture of pulled pork. ‘They gave it to me and I thought it was carnitas!’ says Trejo approvingly. His favourite, though, is the Baja fish taco: a thick piece of beer-battered cod served with pineapple and chipotle slaw. Trejo has been sober for 55 years, so we wash the food down with Margaritas made with his own Trejo’s Spirits zero-alcohol tequila. ‘Unreal,’ he smiles. ‘I love it.’

'Heat was an incredible cast: De Niro, Pacino, Kilmer, Jon Voight... and then Michael Mann would say to me: “Stop stealing the scenes, you’re too f***ing real!”’

Danny Trejo

Growing up, Trejo didn’t spend much time eating at restaurants. Born in Echo Park, East LA, in 1944, he grew up in Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley. His father, another Dan, was a labourer who never set foot in the kitchen. It was up to his stepmother, Alice, to make sure there was food on the table. ‘On the first of the month we’d have these great meals, and then towards the end of the month, that’s when mom would start throwing stuff together out of the cupboard,’ recalls Trejo. ‘That was genius. She was a great cook.’ He wound his dad up by telling her she should open her own place. ‘Women didn’t work in the Fifties. That was the culture, especially in Mexican families,’ he explains. ‘If I wanted to piss my dad off, we’d be eating dinner and I’d say: “Mom, we should open a restaurant!” My dad would go: “We have a kitchen right there!”’

As a boy, Trejo fell under the sway of his uncle Gilbert, a career criminal who introduced his nephew to both alcohol and heroin by the age of 12. Trejo was sent to Eastlake Juvenile Hall for the first time in 1956, convicted of selling four ounces of sugar as heroin to an undercover cop. After he got out he fell into a life of armed robberies, sometimes using a grenade with the pin pulled out instead of a gun, and wound up spending most of the Sixties in and out of the California prison system. While incarcerated Trejo became a boxing champion, winning lightweight and welterweight titles in San Quentin from 1966-1968. That meant he had to figure out how to eat as well as he could. ‘If you’re eating main line, it’s crap,’ he remembers. ‘But if you’re somewhat of a journeyman convict, then you have people doing things for you. You’d have people sneaking steaks out of the kitchen or the officer’s dining room. If you’ve got a hustle going, then you can eat good.’

When Trejo got out of prison for the last time in 1969, he went back home to see Alice. The first thing he ate was a plate of cookies she’d baked. ‘I was a tough ex-con eating cookies with his mom!’ he laughs. Having got sober behind bars he started work as a drug counsellor and late one night received a call from an actor who needed help with his cocaine problem on the set of 1985 thriller Runaway Train. When he arrived he was recognised by screenwriter Eddie Bunker, who’d done time with him in San Quentin, and was promptly hired to teach Eric Roberts how to box in the film’s prison scenes. Trejo also appeared as an extra in the film, marking the beginning of an unlikely film career that now spans five decades.

After years playing inmates, thugs and heavies, Trejo got a break when he and Bunker were hired as armed robbery consultants for 1995’s Heat. It was Trejo’s job to teach Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer how to stick up a bank, and eventually director Michael Mann added him to the cast. ‘Heat was such a great movie and it pushed me to another level,’ remembers Trejo fondly. ‘It was an incredible cast: De Niro, Pacino, Kilmer, Jon Voight... and then Michael Mann would say to me: “Stop stealing the scenes, you’re too f***ing real!”’

The same year he made Heat, Trejo was cast as a silent, knife-twirling assassin in Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado. ‘When I walked into his office, Robert went: “Wow, you look like the bad guys in my high school!”’ remembers Trejo with an evil chuckle. ‘I said: “I AM the bad guys in your high school!”’ The pair have since made eight more films together, creating Trejo’s signature character in the process. Isador ‘Machete’ Cortez first appeared in family caper Spy Kids in 2001 before turning up riding a machine-gun motorbike in a fake trailer included in 2007’s schlocky Rodriguez/Tarantino team-up Grindhouse. The trailer proved so popular it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, spawning a pair of rip-roaring action flicks Machete and Machete Kills. ‘That Halloween, after Machete came out, I heard a knock at the door and it was these little Mexican kids all dressed like me,’ Trejo remembers. ‘I was just so proud of what we did. We’re not Superman, we’re not Batman. We’re a Latino hero.’ He’s still pushing Rodriguez to bring the character back for a third outing. ‘We’re all waiting for Machete Kills… In Space!’ he grins.

First, he’s got a transatlantic restaurant opening to oversee. He tells me he’s excited to get back to London and to see how his health-concious take on Mexican food goes down there. His restaurants, he reassures me, aren’t just an excuse to slap his face on the logo and walk away. They mean the world to him. ‘It’s going to sound corny, but I think the best meal of my life was when we first opened Trejo’s Tacos,’ he says. ‘Back then I didn’t know, or even have a prayer, about expanding. It was just, hey, it’s right here on La Brea. To sit down and have a meal there…’ He trails off, his tough guy exterior cracking open like a pistachio shell. ‘I remember just staring at my picture on the sign,’ he says finally. ‘I think that’s as close to tears as I’ve ever come about something, you know?’

Trejo’s Tacos opens at 301 Portobello Road in late January (trejostacos.com)