Machete man Danny Trejo has conquered movies, tacos, doughnuts and now wants a slice of the music business
Richard Guzman, 07/31/2019
View on The Los Angeles Daily News
Actor and entrepreneur Danny Trejo wants to create the Chicano Motown and tells us about his favorite tacos
Danny Trejo is a renaissance man.
He’s an iconic actor with hundreds of roles on his enviable Hollywood resume.
He’s a successful restaurateur with a growing taco and doughnut empire that shows no signs of cooling down. And even though he doesn’t drink, he’s got a beer out, too, a Mexican lager of course.
And just like the famous tattoo of a woman in a sombrero that’s inked on his chest, the Los Angeles native wants to leave his permanent mark on the world of music by becoming the Mexican Berry Gordy.
And you better believe Machete can pull that off, too.
“I’m just so passionate about music, all the way back to the ’50s,” Trejo said as he sat in his Sherman Oaks music studio a few days after the launch of his new record label called Trejo’s Music.
“Everything good that has happened to me has happened from helping people, and I started this record label to help people,” he said, explaining that one of his main goals is to support new artists.
“Let’s hear you and if you can fit, you’re on,” he said.
But what kind of chance does 75-year-old Trejo, a former inmate who by chance became an actor known for playing tough guy roles such as a knife throwing assassin in “Desperado” and a former Mexican Federale named Machete in the Machete and Spy Kids films, have of pulling off a career in music?
From hooligan to Hollywood
Born in Echo Park in 1944, Trejo wasn’t quite on the path to the success he’s now achieved.
Influenced by a young uncle, Trejo was off to a life of crime from an early age and did time in juvenile camps before eventually landing in Soledad and San Quentin state prisons for drugs and other crimes.
After being in and out of prison for about a decade, he completed a 12-step program that forever changed his life as he began counseling others about the dangers of drugs.
This led to a call in 1985 to the set of the film “Runaway Train” to counsel one of the actors.
It was there where his tough-guy appearance paid off and he was noticed by the director who wanted to put him in the film as an extra.
But thanks to the boxing he had done while he was in prison he got a meatier role and was cast as a boxer squaring off in the ring against the film’s star, Eric Roberts.
From there it’s been pretty much a dream career with hundreds of roles in films and TV.
Although he couldn’t be nicer in real life, thanks to his unforgettable mug, body full of tats, gruffy voice plus his deadly cold stare backed by real time behind bars, Trejo has usually played a tough guy and criminal throughout his long Hollywood career.
But through it all there has always been his love for food and music.
Soothing the beast
When he was just a kid, maybe 11 or so, his uncle took him to his first dance. Trejo remembers the borrowed blazer that was a little too big for him. He had his eye on an older girl at the dance who was a few years older, maybe 15.
“I remember this song came on,” he said just before closing his eyes and signing the lyrics, “Ooh night owl, cooo, cooo,” from the 1955 song “Nite Owl” by Tony Allen, as he smiled and shook his broad shoulders slightly.
“I remember dancing with this young lady … music will soothe the savage beast,” he said with a mischievous smile.
Music was also there to soothe him when he was behind bars decades ago.
Trejo remembers that while locked up at Soledad inmates would listen to artists such as the Beatles and sing at the top of their lungs to songs including “Hey Jude.”
“There are things about music you will remember for the rest of your life,” Trejo said.
Other lifelong memories led to business ventures. Trejo’s love of food came from his mother, a great cook who always dreamed of opening her own restaurant, Trejo recalled.
But every time his mom would talk about opening a restaurant, his dad was quick to point her to their own kitchen, Trejo remembered.
“My dad, my jefito, was like the Mexican Archie Bunker. It was the ’50s, holmes. Women couldn’t work,” he said.
Decades later, around 2012, Trejo was starring in yet another movie when producer Ash Shah noticed the actor’s passion for food.
“He noticed I liked eating good food. I don’t eat fast food and junk. And jokingly, or I don’t know if he was joking or not, he said ‘Danny why don’t you open a restaurant?’” Trejo said.
The actor’s first thought after that suggestion was “Trejo’s Tacos.”
“That was the name we joked about with my mom (for her restaurant),” he said.
Trejo went on to film a couple of other movies with the producer and Shah eventually presented him with a business plan for a restaurant.
“It was a thick big book of a business plan. And me being the brilliant businessman that I am I gave it to my agent and said ‘Here, check this out for me.’ I can read three pages and if you don’t have me killing someone I ain’t reading anymore,” he joked.
His agent liked the deal so he went for it and a few months later in 2016 the first Trejo’s Tacos opened along a busy stretch of La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles.
Trejo, along with Shah and their business partner Jeff Georgino, now run four Trejo’s Tacos locations, three Trejo’s Cantinas and one Trejo’s Coffee & Donuts in the Los Angeles area.
Since Trejo likes healthy food, his chain is billed as healthier Mexican food with items such as jackfruit and cauliflower tacos, although there are still carnitas, baracoa and Trejo’s favorite, carne asada, on the menu.
There’s another taco that he loves, too, but admitting it could ruin his tough-guy cred.
“Don’t tell anyone I love this, but give me a cauliflower taco anytime,” he said with a laugh.
And thanks to a partnership with Live Nation, Trejo’s Tacos are also at 24 local concert venues where his food is sold during approximately 500 shows per year.
The taco shops have also had outposts at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and Stagecoach Country Music Festival, while plans are underway to expand to Las Vegas, New York, Texas, and Colorado.
“All of a sudden this thing blew up. We killed it,” Trejo said.
But while his familiar mug makes up the restaurant logo, Trejo credits the success to more than just his face.
“Everyone keeps asking me what’s the secret … it’s good food. There ain’t no damn secret. We have celebrities who have started restaurants and they think just because of their names it’ll prosper,” he said.
Trejo also puts a lot of footwork into his restaurants and he’ll often show up unannounced for quality control and to sign autographs for stunned fans who happen to be eating there.
With the same passion he puts behinds his restaurants, Trejo started the record label with rapper and singer Baby Bash and producer Edward “E-Dub” Rios, who all want to turn Trejo’s Music into the Chicano Motown.
The first album under the label, “Danny Trejo Presents Chicano Soul Shop Volume 1,” dropped earlier this month on streaming and download services and features Trejo on the cover in a white tank top looking as tough as ever as he stands in front of a lowrider car.
The album features music that encompasses a mix of genres, including soul, hip-hop, R&B and rock, with established artists such as Baby Bash, Frankie J, Chiquis Rivera and rock fusion band Puro Bandido. And in keeping with Trejo’s goal of exposing new talent, there are up-and-coming artists as well, including Joey Quiñones, Trish Toledo and Tarah New.
“It’s a big old pot of menudo … everything that speaks to us as a (Chicano) culture,” Bash said of the first release.
And just like music brings back good memories and got him through tough times, Trejo hopes the music released through his label will do the same for others.
“I would love to be just sitting somewhere just watching people dance, watching people sing and have a good time to our music,” Trejo said.
“Like the Mexican Berry Gordy,” said rapper and singer Baby Bash, his record label partner, added as they broke out in laughter.