There are many places where you might expect to find Danny Trejo. On-screen, in one of the 300 or so movies the 72-year-old actor has appeared in over his long career, including three "From Dusk Till Dawn" films. In commercials — here's hoping he reprises his 2015 Marcia Brady imitation during the next Super Bowl. You might not expect to see Trejo working the line in a kitchen, even if it is his own restaurant.
On a recent morning, Trejo moved around the 400-square-foot kitchen of Trejo's Cantina in Hollywood, the actor's second taqueria — the original year-old location is on La Brea Avenue — deftly working the stoves with his executive chef, John-Carlos Kuramoto. Finding Kuramoto, a veteran of Campanile, Michael's in Santa Monica and Osteria Mozza even though he's only 29, working the line is less unlikely.
Trejo is hardly wearing chef's whites. He's dressed all in black, a large crucifix around his neck like a relic, his trademark long hair under a Trejo's Tacos baseball cap. His face, deeply etched around the handlebar mustache, is an off-road map. But the equally trademark scowl is noticeably absent, replaced by laughter, a running commentary with Kuramoto and the fact that he keeps pausing to eat tacos. And not just any tacos: the roasted cauliflower tacos that have become one of the most popular items on the restaurant's menu.
"This is how you take a bite of a vegan taco," says Trejo. "You bite it harder."
"My mom always wanted to open a restaurant," says the actor, who grew up in Echo Park and lives in Mission Hills. "But my dad was like a Mexican Archie Bunker. 'We have a kitchen right there,' he'd say." Kuramoto tosses a corn tortilla onto the flattop like a frisbee as Trejo sautees cauliflower. Did he ever think he'd open a restaurant? "I never thought I'd get out of prison," says Trejo, smiling broadly.
Before Trejo began appearing in movies, you'd likely have found him in jail or in a boxing ring or both — he won lightweight and welterweight titles while serving time in San Quentin for drug offenses — or in the rooms of 12-step programs; he got his first acting job, as an extra, while working as a drug counselor. His appreciation of food evolved over time ("when you get sober, you're not eating pickled pigs feet in a bar"), and to reflect it. "'When you're in the industry, the entertainment industry, inevitably someone's going to say: I'm vegetarian, I'm vegan.' "
So when Trejo actually opened a restaurant, not only did he and his chef put the tacos of Trejo's childhood on the menu, they made sure to put vegetable-centered and specifically vegan tacos there as well.
"Cauliflower is one of those things you fall in love with," says Kuramoto, as he arranges the heady mixture of orange, green, lavender and pale florets with roasted corn on the griddled tortilla, adding a cream made from cashews, pickled onions, the traditional accompaniments of cilantro, radishes and lime wedges.
"I thought about Nancy's whole roasted cauliflower," the chef says. He's talking, of course, about Nancy Silverton's whole vegetable dish, which the James Beard Award-winning chef has installed on the menu of Pizzeria Mozza, her restaurant about a mile and a half away from Trejo's. (Silverton is one of the patron saints of L.A.'s new vegetable cooking, as well as Kuramoto's former boss at the Osteria.)
"We're trying to stay as authentic as we can," Trejo says, putting down the breakfast burrito someone had handed him, already his second or third breakfast of the day. "My mom cooked with lard," he says, by way of explanation. But they also want to cater to a community of families, of both kids and adults with health concerns and, yes, the entertainment industry that has given Trejo a remarkably prolific career that's showing little signs of slowing down.
Kuramoto goes back to work: Jidori chicken with achiote, or maybe the taco he's making with young jackfruit and tomatillos. And Trejo heads out into the restaurant's casual dining room to greet some regulars, the kitchen doors swinging behind him like those in an imaginary saloon.
1556 N. Cahuenga Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 461-TACO, www.trejostacos.com.