Actor Danny Trejo played the bad guy in 300 films, now he wants to serve you vegan tacos
Actor Danny Trejo has played the bad guy, the mean dude, and the villain in more than 300 movies including Heat, Grindhouse, Spy Kids and Machete Kills. In February, a survey announced that Trejo beat a new record: He has been killed 65 times on screen, which is more than any other actor in history.
“Absolutely!” laughs Trejo. “I got eaten by a badger in a movie called [The Salton Sea] with my best friend Val Kilmer. I remember when I died in Heat, Robert De Niro shot me. It don’t get no better than that!”
Trejo is the latest guest on Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast “Your Last Meal.”
His latest venture is restaurants. In 2016, he opened Trejo’s Tacos in Los Angeles, and then Trejo’s Coffee and Donuts. Trejo is adamant about serving healthy options, so while they serve classic dishes like carnitas and barbacoa, and not-so-classic tacos stuffed with chicken tikka or fried chicken, there’s also a mushroom asada taco with pepita pesto, verde slaw, and a citrus marinade, and vegan tacos filled with cauliflower or jackfruit. Trejo’s Tacos doesn’t cook with lard and their horchata is sweetened with dates instead of sugar.
Decades ago, when Trejo was raising young kids as a single dad, he had an epiphany. He would regularly take his kids to McDonald’s so he could study his lines while they stayed busy in the play center.
“And then one day my son came home and said, ‘Dad, you’re poisoning us. Processed food is not good.’ I said, ‘What?! Who told you?’ His teacher. So now we’ve got to eat better. When I pass a grammar school and I look at 10 kids and two of them are overweight and one of them is obese, America’s got to change our diet,” Trejo said. “That’s why we have so many people with diabetes, and so many things that are making people sick later in life. Diet is everything. I’m 76 years old and I can still play a 50-year-old gangster!”
There are plenty of taco snobs out there who argue that the Mexican food Danny is serving at Trejo’s Tacos isn’t “authentic,” that real Mexican food isn’t vegan and doesn’t involve cauliflower. A “real” taco has to be two corn tortillas topped with meat, like carne asada or carnitas, and onions, cilantro and salsa. End of story. But what does “authentic” even mean?
Denise Vallejo is the chef and owner of Alchemy Organica in Los Angeles, where she cooks vegan Mexican food. After being criticized for not cooking “real” Mexican food, she did her research and discovered that before the Spanish Conquest of Mexico in 1519, there were no flour tortillas, cheese, sugar or pork.
“Prior to that, our indigenous relatives would be eating bugs, if anything,” Vallejo said. “They ate beans, corn, squash. Chilies, obviously. Amaranth, cacao, spirulina, chia seeds, things like that. These are the building blocks of the protein that we would eat in those times. Definitely not pork, not beef, wheat wasn’t even there. So these ideas of what authentic Mexican is, is definitely post invasion. We got the cheese from the Mennonites that came in. [The Spanish] wanted to wipe out the use of corn — corn was too native, it was seen as lower class. Amaranth was outlawed because it was used during a lot of native rituals. When the Spanish came to convert all our people to Catholicism, they had to get rid of those things, too. Anything that was used during these rituals had to be outlawed.”
Vallejo discovered that her ancestors ate closer to her vegan diet than to the cheesy enchiladas so many Americans love today.
Trejo and Vallejo are both Mexican-American, so if they want to serve vegan Mexican food, perhaps they’re just evolving the food of their people. Javier Cabral sees it that way. He won two James Beard Awards this year as editor-in-chief of L.A. Taco and associate producer of the Netflix show Taco Chronicles. Cabral has written his fair share of articles defending the $5 “fancy” taco, where chefs use high quality ingredients and get creative with the fillings they tuck inside tortillas.
“The larger percentage of people love to fetishize authenticity and, for them, in their heads, a taco is not authentic if it doesn’t have just your carne asada, your al pastor, your onion, your cilantro and your salsa,” Cabral said. “Something weird happens when you slip a tortilla under really good ingredients. People get really upset about it. But if you were to take away that tortilla and present those same ingredients on the plate, people love it and are willing to pay more than $15 for it. There is 100% a double standard that exists with ‘gourmet’ tacos. My personal mindset? I’m all up for the evolution of tacos as long as it’s not appropriated out of its cultural basis.”
The word appropriation comes up a lot, but what does it mean when applied to cooking and food?
“I think, for the most part, if you are white or if you are making the food of another cultural group, and if you do it with a very authoritative style without really honoring the roots of that food or without having humility for it,” Cabral explained. “I think that’s the biggest difference between being a student of a certain regional food type or culturally appropriating it. There’s a big difference in whether you have an ego about it, if you admit that you’re not part of that cultural group, and that you’re always trying to learn.”
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- Rachel Belle hosts the James Beard Award nominated podcast Your Last Meal and she's an Edward R Murrow award winning feature reporter. Follow Rachel on Instagram.