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Danny Trejo on his new book, 'Trejo's Cantina'


Chances are you know Danny Trejo's work as an actor. He's known for portraying tough guys in films like the "Machete" franchise, "From Dusk Till Dawn," "Con Air." If you go way back, you remember him from the classic LA gang film "Blood In Blood Out." But in addition to his decades-long acting career, food and cooking are also a big part of Danny Trejo's life. Here in Los Angeles, he's got several successful Mexican restaurants, a cantina and a coffee and donut shop. Now Danny Trejo has a new cookbook where he explains his love for food, community and his hometown, LA. It's called "Trejo's Cantina: Cocktails, Snacks & Amazing Non-Alcoholic Drinks From The Heart Of Hollywood." And Danny Trejo is with me now to talk more about the book and what inspired it. Danny Trejo, welcome.

DANNY TREJO: Hello. How are you doing?

FLORIDO: I'm doing fine. I'm excited to talk with you today.

TREJO: Thank you. Thank you, man. It's a pleasure.

FLORIDO: This is a book of recipes for cantina food. About half his food, but the other half is recipes for cocktails and drinks. But you don't drink. You've been sober for - what? - 40 years now?

TREJO: Fifty years. Yeah. I know. I dedicated this book to the non-drinking community, the recovery community. But it has some great recipes. And I have my favorite of all times, you know, my fight night nachos, which are, like, just perfect for, you know, guys over watching the fights or a football game. And we do our nachos special because every time people make nachos, you always run out of the top before, and then you just got a whole plate of chips down at the bottom that nobody wants to eat. So what we did was we put a bed of chips and then a top of the topping and then another bed of chips and a top of topping. So what you have is a full meal and...

FLORIDO: Which is just the way it should be, done, right?

TREJO: Yeah. Right. For breakfast, I just put two eggs over easy on top of that, and I got breakfast.

FLORIDO: What got you into cooking?

TREJO: Well, you know what? My mom was an unbelievable cook. When I was in the universities in California, and...

FLORIDO: When you talk - wait. When you say the universities of California, you're talking about...

TREJO: San Quentin, Folsom (laughter).

FLORIDO: They're prisons. Yeah.

TREJO: Yeah.

FLORIDO: You spent some time in prison in the '60s, as is a well-known part of your life story.

TREJO: Yeah. And, you know, it's so funny. There's a friend of mine, a guy named Clifton Collins, who was actually Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez's grandson. And Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez was one of the first Latinos in movies. He was John Wayne's sidekick all the time. And he developed a book. It's called "Ramen." And it's all the recipes from different penitentiaries that guys use to make Top Ramen. There's some great recipes in there. And those were all the ones because when me and him were talking, we gave him our recipes, you know.

FLORIDO: Wait. So you were telling me about how in prison you would bring all this stuff down to the yard.

TREJO: Yeah. And put everything together and mix it up and make, you know, Top Ramen with egg and hot dogs and cheese. And you'd make a nice casserole, you know, And everybody loved it. So we just brought it out to the streets. Me, I brought it, you know, into my restaurants (laughter).

FLORIDO: You pepper this book with a lot of the lessons that you learned about cooking while in prison.

TREJO: Right.

FLORIDO: And maybe not even just about cooking, but about, you know, the role that food plays in our lives. How do those lessons from prisons show up in this cookbook?

TREJO: I did a movie called "Machete," and in it, actually, Jessica Alba says a quote. She says something that I was - we were talking about. She says, my Jualita (ph) always says, you know, don't have any problems without eating a good meal. It's tough to make a good decision if you're hungry. It's tough to be in a good mood if you're hungry. So it's like, you know, like, you have to celebrate food. You have to celebrate life, you know. And food and life go together.

FLORIDO: A big part of your book is what you call the holy trinity - cilantro, onion and lime...

TREJO: (Laughter).

FLORIDO: ...Which are a big part of a lot of Mexican food. And I have to be honest with you. I cannot stand raw onion. And so I have had to get through being a Mexican without eating raw onion.

TREJO: You - raw onions? I like cooked onions...

FLORIDO: Yeah, that I can do...

TREJO: ...Myself (laughter).

FLORIDO: ...But raw onion I can't, and it's in everything. So every time I go and order a burrito, I have to say, (speaking Spanish), you know, no onion.

TREJO: Cook my onions, you and me. You know, I loved cooked - everything - I loved everything cooked. And it's like I think the only thing I'd ever eat would be one of my danger dogs, I'll eat chopped onion on that, you know. But I like, you know, just cooked a little bit.

TREJO: I noticed that there was no recipe in this book for guacamole, but I have a, like, very important question for you about guacamole, because whenever my dad calls up, like, all of his kids and his brothers and sisters, my aunts and uncles, to come over to the house because he's making carne asada, I am the guy who gets tasked with making the guacamole. They hand me the molcajete, the mortar and pestle, because I learned to make it from my grandmother. And it's a really simple recipe where you ground raw garlic into the molcajete.

TREJO: Yes, yes, yes.

FLORIDO: Then ground in some toasted jalapenos, the (speaking Spanish) and a little bit of salt on top.

TREJO: Yeah.

FLORIDO: No onion. No diced tomato. I see raw onion and diced tomato in guacamole everywhere now, and I'm wondering how you feel about that.

TREJO: Our recipe for guacamole was in our first book. And we have probably some of the best guacamole in LA. And we do it with a little ground-up jalapeno like your grandma. And I absolutely love it. But yeah, I don't have no onion in it.

FLORIDO: No onion. Right. Good. Good. You're one of mine. (Speaking Spanish). I'm glad to know that Danny Trejo and I have the same taste in guacamole.


FLORIDO: Well, Danny Trejo, in addition to cooking, I understand you've got another new venture. It's a new record label, Trejo's Music. And you've got a new album which includes this song called "Outlaw." Let's listen to a little bit of it.


TREJO: (Singing) From San Jose to East LA, I'm a motorcycle rider, a highway flyer. I'm an outlaw, baby. Just an outlaw.


FLORIDO: Tell me a little bit about this song.

TREJO: Yeah. You know what? I started the record label, so we put a studio in my garage. And I was on the microphone. And I was singing. And Baby Bash came over, and he was listening to me and says, let's put that on the album. I go, I'm not a singer. He goes, that's not a voice song. That's a sing song. So we put it on. It did really well (laughter). But I'm not switching careers, so don't worry, fans.


FLORIDO: You'll stick to cooking, it sounds like - cooking and acting. I've been speaking with Danny Trejo. His new cookbook, "Trejo's Cantina: Cocktails, Snacks & Amazing Non-Alcoholic Drinks From The Heart Of Hollywood" is out now. Danny Trejo, thanks so much for joining us.

TREJO: Hey, thank you so much. It's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.