Hola from Hollywood
The technical definition of a cantina is a Mexican restaurant that serves drinks. But culturally, cantinas are a lot more than that. When I was growing up in Los Angeles, they were places on the side streets of downtown or the East side where men would gather to get away from the heat of a hot summer day, the challenges of life, hang with their friends, have a drink, and feel like they belonged. You could say they’re in my blood since I’ve been hanging out in them ever since I was a kid.
One of my earliest childhood memories is tagging along with my dad and uncles to the oldest Mexican settlement in LA and where, after church on a Sunday, we’d sneak into the cool dark of one of the local bars. This was due east of Hollywood some ten miles, on Olvera Street. They’d have their drinks (I’d have a soda) and there’d be a spread of snacks; nothing fancy, just cheese and sandwiches laid out for the guys. I think it was their way of getting guys to stay at the bar and not leave to go eat somewhere else. So it makes sense that I opened my own cantina smack-dab in the middle of Hollywood, my favorite neighborhood in the city I call home.
The irony of all of this—that I would open a watering hole known for food and drinks—is not lost on me. I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol in over fifty years. But for me, it’s not about the cocktails or alcohol per se but about the point of a cantina: They’re festive gathering places where people come to enjoy life and celebrate one another’s company. I opened mine to be all inclusive to nondrinkers and drinkers alike—and we have fun drinks and cocktails as well as food for vegans, vegetarians, and people doing gluten-free and paleo—as well as for meat-and-potato guys, like me. We’ve all got our paths, and no matter what they are you gotta eat and you gotta eat well. And that’s what this book is all about: easy food that’s a celebration in every bite.
Hollywood is a neighborhood I’d cruise to back in the ’60s when I was running around causing the kind of trouble that got me locked up in San Quentin. One wrong move and my life could’ve ended in Hollywood, but by the grace of God I became a working actor instead. Now Hollywood is home to my Trejo’s restaurant empire. Going from movie “bad guy” to restaurateur is a Hollywood second act that I’ve been enjoying almost as much as acting.
In my first cookbook, Trejo’s Tacos,
I shared the food that taquerías are famous for: sometimes healthy, slightly modern twists on classics, like my mom’s barbacoa brisket, our award-winning cauliflower tacos, our killer breakfast burrito, and donuts that come in the brightly colored box with my mug on it (it proves real men do wear pink!). It taught you how to cook the Trejo way in the comfort of your home.
In this book I’m going to share more of the kind of Mexican food that Angelenos like me eat every day. Which is to say fun and easy food with big bold flavors. There are taquitos you can riff on, tostadas you can swap toppings on, and spicy Mexican Thousand Island dressing you’ll be slathering on every damn sandwich. Empanadas you can make meaty or vegan, birria tacos just as good as the ones you get at Tijuana-inspired taco trucks all over the city, the bacon-wrapped jalapeño-spiked hot dogs called Danger Dogs sizzled on hot-rodded shopping carts outside Dodger Stadium on late nights, and even the fight-night nachos I serve my friends when we’re hanging out at my house in the San Fernando Valley. There’s a chorizo burger inspired by the holy burger trinity of LA: In-N-Out, Bob’s Big Boy, and Fatburgers. And in the spirit of something for everyone, we’ve also got some damned fine vegetarian tamales that are so delicious you’d swear they were made with manteca!
And since this is a book about recreating Trejo-style cantina vibes at home, we’ve got drinks that are a celebration of this great city and of life itself. Hollywood is home to historic bars where bartenders have been slinging cocktails in saloons and restaurants like the Brown Derby, Musso & Frank Grill, the Cock ’n Bull, and Tiki-Ti long before mixology became a trend. We’ve taken many of the classic cocktails served at these spots and updated them with a Mexican twist.
But like me, not everybody drinks alcohol, so it was important to me to have drinks that were just as delicious and sophisticated and celebratory as our cocktails but that didn’t have alcohol. To make the cut, they needed to stand on their own and make you say: “Damn this is good!” Just don’t call them mocktails. If I’m throwing a party, everyone gets a seat at the table.
A quick rewind to 2020, when I started working on this book: The party was going hard at the cantina, and then the world turned upside down. First, the pandemic ravaged our city, killing thousands and forcing people to hole up in their homes, terrified. Soon after, the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed hit us hard—there was marching in the streets and out-and-out combat with the police. The Trejo group of restaurants shut down for the first time in their history. No tacos were slung on La Brea. Our taco truck was parked for good. The cantina, closed. The farmers’ market, usually bustling at all hours, was a ghost town like the rest of Los Angeles. Some of the world ground to a halt, but not me. I’d rather look for a solution than be a part of the problem.
Ever since I got out of prison, I’ve sought to comfort people rather than seek comfort, and the pandemic didn’t stop me. I hit the streets with my consigliere, Mario, another ex-con with a heart of gold. We helped the homeless by handing out food and thermal underwear. It’s what I’ve been doing for decades and, if anything, we ramped up the outreach during the pandemic. As soon as we could, we fired up the burners again at the cantina and cooked food for restaurant workers who’d lost their jobs and for the protesters marching in the streets. And yes, for the cops, too. We’d offer food to the cops and they were shocked, like, this is for us, too? Absolutely! We’re all doing our best. Even though the restaurants were shut, we kept folks employed and kept people fed to the best of our ability.
Fast-forward to today: Hollywood is open again and the cantina is bustling. And I can’t get enough of the neighborhood. It’s got the history, the hustle, and the dreams of this great city of LA that I’ve always called home. It’s where to this day I cruise in one of my lowriders on the same streets where I took long midnight walks with my mentor and best friend Eddie Bunker when I was figuring out life. It’s the neighborhood that employed me from the beginning: where I helped build the Cinerama Dome, and where the old movie studios and sound stages first put me to work. And it’s also where we have our top-secret development kitchen where we act like mad scientists and invent dishes and drinks for the restaurants and our cookbooks, including the one you’ve got in your hands. Yeah, life was hard for me at points, but I always find the positive no matter what happens, and that’s the soul of a cantina: a place to celebrate life with all its complicated surprises and twists and turns. I specialize in twists and turns: thug as a kid, ex-thug sober guy, thug on screen, ex-thug who hugs. And that’s what this book is: a big badass Trejo hug. Now go get into your kitchen, cook up something spicy, and join me in celebrating life in all its badass beauty.
Copyright © 2023 by Danny Trejo with Hugh Garvey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.