When it comes to the movies, they don't make 'em tougher, or more grizzled, than Danny Trejo. But offscreen, you're more likely to find him all smiles, greeting and feeding folks at his chain of Los Angeles restaurants: Trejos Tacos.
He's offering "good, good food, and people that know it's Danny Trejo's restaurant, you know, they wanna see me, you know? So, what I do is I try to be here."
While he's quick to admit that he's mostly the "weathered" face of the operation, Trejo did taste-test every item, and he knew what he was looking for: "My mom was just an unbelievable cook," he said. "But you know, Latino families, you know, we eat really good, like, the first of the month, first, all the way up to about the 19th!" he laughed. "And then, things start getting scarce!"
Considering those early lean times, Trejo's success might seem improbable, but it's actually unbelievable if you consider where he started, having been in and out of prison most of his young adult life on a variety of charges – drugs, robbery, assault. "It's all intimidation – that was what you had to do," he said.
Surviving in prison meant making hard choices: "There's two kinds of people in prison: there's predator and there's prey. And you have to decide every day, 'What am I gonna be?' If it's prey, then I give up. If it's predator, then I'm gonna kill somebody."
Hooked on heroin and sitting in solitary after starting a prison riot, he finally hit rock bottom in 1968. "And I remember asking God, 'Lord, let me die with dignity. That's all. Just let me die with dignity, and I'll say your name every day, and I'll do whatever I can for my fellow man.'"
Somehow he was able to turn life around, and was released in 1969. More important, for him, he got and stayed sober.
In fact, Trejo's big film break was actually related to his sobriety. In 1985 he showed up on the set of a film called "Runaway Train" to give moral support to a production assistant struggling with addiction. The director liked his unique look and, amazingly, put him in the film, playing – what else? – a convict.
From there, Trejo built a career playing tough, scary guys.
Correspondent Luke Burbank asked, "How do you feel about being known as this kind of menacing character in films?"
"I'm really glad I'm known for anything!" he laughed. "And it's really funny, 'cause for me that menacing isn't hard to do. The minute that director says 'cut' I have to say, 'I wanna hold my kids.' You know, because for me staying in 'that guy' is dangerous."
With more than 350 roles, Trejo (now age 75) can't believe how far he's come. If you want proof, just take a walk with him in his old stomping grounds of Pacoima, California. "I got arrested right there," he said. "They used to deal right there. That was our place to deal, right?"
"Wait, so, you used to deal drugs in this parking lot that now has this mural?"
"Yeah. Right there!"
It's a moment straight out of a Hollywood script. But this isn't make-believe; this is Danny Trejo's real life. At least he's sure hoping it is.
"I'm so afraid somebody's gonna wake me up: 'Hey, Dan, let's go to chow.' 'You mean I'm still in prison? All this is a dream?'" he laughed.
Recipes from Danny Trejo:
For more info:
- "Trejo's Tacos: Recipes and Stories from L.A.: A Cookbook" by Danny Trejo with Hugh Garvey (Clarkson Potter), in Hardcover and eBook formats, available April 2020; preorder via Amazon
- Trejo's Tacos
- Trejo's Coffee & Donuts
Story produced by David Rothman.