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 long hair under a Trejo’s Tacos baseball cap. His face, deeply etched around the handlebar mustache, is an off-road map. But the 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 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.
“We’re trying to stay as authentic as we can,” Trejo says. “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.
ROASTED RAINBOW CAULIFLOWER TACOS
About 1 hour, plus overnight soaking time. Makes 6 tacos
1 cup cashews
3 cups water
2 tablespoons salt, or to taste
2 teaspoons lime juice, or to taste
In a bowl, soak the cashews in water, cover and set aside overnight at room temperature for the cashews to soften. The next day, strain the cashews, reserving the water. In a blender, puree the cashews with enough water to form a smooth sauce with the texture of heavy cream. Season with salt and lime juice to taste. This makes a generous cup of cream, which will keep, covered and refrigerated, up to 5 days.
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced
1/4 cup lime juice
1 tablespoon salt
In a nonreactive bowl, stir together the onion, lime juice and salt until the salt is dissolved and all of the onion is covered. Set the mixture aside to marinate for at least 20 minutes before assembling the tacos. The pickled onions will keep for 3 to 5 days, covered and refrigerated.
Grilled White Corn:
2 ears white corn, husks removed
Olive oil, for brushing
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste
Brush the corn with a light coat of olive oil and sprinkle over salt and pepper to taste. Cook the corn over a grill or grill pan heated over medium-high heat until the corn is charred and tender on all sides, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from heat and cut the kernels from the cobs. You should have about 1 cup corn kernels. Set aside.
4 cups colored cauliflower florets, from a mixture of purple, orange, green and white cauliflower heads
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. In a bowl, toss the cauliflower florets with the olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, until evenly combined. Spread the cauliflower onto a rimmed baking sheet and roast until slightly charred and tender, about 15 minutes, depending on the size of the florets.
Roasted Rainbow Cauliflower Tacos:
1 teaspoon olive oil
Prepared roasted cauliflower
Prepared grilled white corn
Lime juice, for seasoning
6 corn tortillas, warmed
3/4 cup prepared cashew cream, or to taste
Prepared pickled onions
Cilantro leaves, for garnish
Crushed roasted cashews, for garnish
1 to 2 radishes, thinly sliced, for garnish
Lime wedges, for serving
Heat a saute pan over medium-high heat until hot, and add the olive oil. Add the cauliflower and corn, stirring until warmed through. Remove from heat. Taste and season the mixture as desired with salt and lime juice.
To assemble the tacos, drizzle about 2 tablespoons cashew cream over each warmed tortilla. Spoon about 1/2 cup of the cauliflower corn mixture onto the tortilla. Top the mixture with a pinch of pickled onions, and garnish with cilantro leaves, roasted cashews and radish slices. Serve the tacos with lime wedges.
— Adapted from a recipe by Trejo’s Tacos