Who doesn’t love Danny Trejo, star of many a Robert Rodriguez film, with his craggy face and gruff exterior that belie a tender heart? But is he a restaurateur? Señor Trejo just opened Trejo’s Cantina on El Molino Avenue in Pasadena. He was born close by in Echo Park, so he must know his Mexican food. But what about the ultra-modern Mexican food found at Trejo’s? Well, the answer lies in Hollywood. Movie producer and friend Ash Shah and his partner Jeff Giorgino helped him start what is destined to become a nationwide phenomenon.
According to an interview in Forbes magazine, the restaurant concept was partially sparked by Hollywood’s eating habits. Anyone who’s been on a set will know the challenges of the craft services people. One actor can’t eat carbs, another is lacto-ovo-vegetarian, the producer is hardcore vegan and the costume designer is pescatarian. Trejo’s Cantina caters to all these people with delicious, creative options that still hold true to Trejo’s LA Mexican roots.
The tacos are as unique as they are vibrant and flavorful. Bigger than your average street taco with less tortilla getting in the way, they tend to be a bit pricier. The revelation to me was the cauliflower taco with its al dente florets mixed with crunchy cashew bits, pickled onions and spicy cashew cream. The overall texture was fun and surprisingly satisfying. The other über-popular vegan taco is the jackfruit. It honestly looks, feels and tastes like pulled pork but is actually more labor intensive to prepare. With its tomatillo slaw and guacamole topping, it is really tasty. My 20-something daughter couldn’t stop talking about it.
It’s surprising that the two vegetarian tacos we tried (there are more) trounced the animal protein ones. Still, the blackened salmon, fried chicken and beef brisket tacos were memorable, especially the fried jidori chicken chunks with chipotle cream set into a lettuce cup instead of a tortilla. While I loved the juxtaposition of cool/crisp and warm/crunch I thought it was curious that the gluten-free transport system (lettuce) carried a gluten-full breaded protein (fried chicken). Such are the whims of the Hollywood elite.
At lunchtime, tacos go for $4 to $6 each. They’re pricey but worth it when you consider their complexity. Dinner is a different story. At night, the tacos must be purchased as a pair and come with tiny ramekins of beans and rice for $17. Trejo’s Cantina Pasadena just opened for dinner last week and I wonder if it’ll cut the mustard with menu items like rib-eye steak for $45 and a cheese-free, meat-free chile relleno for $18. The chile relleno was stellar with its roasted tomato sauce, corn, black bean and farro filling, but I couldn’t help thinking this was a deconstructed soup — a really good soup, mind you — sans broth that could never possibly be sold for $18.
Maybe the thing to do in the evening is stick to appetizers. The Brussels sprouts we had were mind-blowing ($10). Soaked in ice water, flash fried then rolled in a chimichurri sauce with walnuts, those mini cabbages were quite addictive. High quality chopped nuts make an appearance in a number of dishes at Trejo’s and I find them very welcome.
You can even find vegan drinks at Trejo’s, including a wonderful vegan horchata. The scent of toasted rice hovers above the almond milk, fresh cinnamon and sweet dates. It’s like a Palm Springs date shake but much lighter. The cocktails, sadly, are nothing to write home about. The cool bar flaunts stylish bottles of tequila and mescal but their take on the margarita, the O.G., is pretty typical. The El Diablo with mescal has a jalapeno top note and a not-unpleasant rubbery bottom note served in an ungarnished tumbler. In a way I like their bare bones presentation — kind of an anti-craft cocktail statement. But I wouldn’t go out of my way for one.
All in all, the experience is enjoyable. Designers have taken the old redwhite+bluezz location and made the most of the space with its arched French doors and Spanish patio. Clever use of padded Mexican blankets on the walls create pleasing acoustics, macrame swag lamps add perfect lighting and mid-century chairs covered in wacky quilted material throw in a dash of whimsy. The sound system is just right and the playlist is beat-driven World music. It would be a fun spot before or after the Pasadena Playhouse, which is right next door. It can also handle a large group (especially of finicky eaters) at their 12-seat table. Service is super friendly and attentive though some wait staff are still learning the ropes. Not the delightful Oyumi, though. She is well-versed in every dish, takes the time to make sure you’re taken care of and quickly gets the job done.
They apparently are getting complaints about the prices. I know that expensive ingredients cost money as do time-consuming preparations and strong service. I also have an idea how they can allay some of those price complaints. Throw in a few frills. Some unexpected perks would go far. For instance, when the gorgeous whole branzino comes to the table, all crispy and shocking with its eyes and fins on display, add more than a sprinkle of shredded cabbage ($26). Give us some fresh tortillas or pickled escabeche or a small bit of amazing salad. Not to besmirch that branzino. It was sweet and juicy with the tiniest bones to navigate like Leif Erikson on a pleasure cruise. And the verde sauce alongside was heavenly.
At the end of dinner at Trejo’s Cantina, I am chagrined to say I was still hungry, as were my teenage son and husband. This is after spending $106 before tip. I could say the same after eating two tacos at lunch but after those, I was coaxed into getting their specialty churros, which have since changed my life. These cactus-y looking fried fingers of dough were like nothing I’d had before, certainly not like the things you see spinning around at Disneyland. They were fried to a hot crusty exterior and a soft, slightly gooey interior as someone’s abuela meant them to be. With dipping sauces of Mexican chocolate and super-sweet strawberry, they currently haunt my reverie. Based on their dough-frying skills, I’m guessing Trejo’s Coffee & Donuts in Hollywood, part of the Trejo nationwide empire currently being built, is pretty darn good.
Whether or not you’re into Danny Trejo the actor, Trejo’s Cantina is worth a visit, if only for the cauliflower tacos and churros.
37 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, 792-4441, Major Cards/Full Bar