Danny Trejo’s Pollo Asado a la Brasa

Grilled chicken in a flavorful marinade gets served with addictive aji sauce.
Grilled chicken in a flavorful marinade gets served with addictive aji sauce.

There’s no denying that Danny Trejo is a big, big presence on the screen.

So, it’s no surprise then that when it comes to cooking, he’s all about flavors as punchy and gutsy as they get.

In the ultimate transformative story, the former drug addict and criminal became not only a Hollywood star, but maverick entrepreneur who launched a record label, as well as five Los Angeles locations of his Trejo’s Tacos, plus his Trejo’s Coffee & Donuts shop, and Trejo’s Cerveza Mexican-style beer.

This year, he also debuted “Trejo’s Cantina” (Clarkson Potter), of which I received a review copy, which is his second cookbook.

While his first cookbook, “Trejo’s Tacos” (Clarkson Potter, 2020), focused on recipes from his restaurants, this one, he writes, is centered on Mexican classics as seen through the lens of Los Angeles.

There are 100 recipes, including 25 cocktail recipes alone. What’s more, there’s nearly an equal number of booze-free drink recipes, a thoughtful addition, owing to the 79-year-old actor’s more than 50 years of sobriety.

Say salud with a delicious non-alcoholic “Morchata” made with pumpkin seeds and dried cherries for a revved up version of classic horchata. Or get your buzz on with “Nacho Dirty Martini” that gets shaken with jalapeno and garnished with a nacho cheese-stuffed olive.

Then, chow down on “Cornmeal-Crusted Calamari and Shrimp with Habanero Tartar Sauce,” “Spicy Crab Tostadas,” “Chorizo Smash Burgers with Mexican Thousand Island Dressing,” and “Chai-Spiced Apple Empanadas.”

This chicken is so moist and flavorful.
This chicken is so moist and flavorful.

“Pollo Asado a la Brasa” features a whole chicken cut into fourths, marinated in a slew of seasonings, then grilled. The recipe calls for a 3 1/2–pound chicken, which is not always easy to find in supermarkets where everything tends to be supersized these days. If you end up buying a 5-pounder like I did, you may want to cut the breast into smaller pieces so that it cooks in roughly the same time as the leg quarters.

Your blender does all the work for the marinade, creating a smooth amalgamation of soy sauce, lime juice, plenty of cilantro, garlic, cumin, oregano, paprika, and achiote paste. If you don’t have the latter in your pantry and don’t want to trudge to the store for it, you can make Rachael Ray’s stand-in blend, doubling that recipe for the required amount needed for Trejo’s recipe. It won’t have the exact earthy and nutty taste of achiote paste, but it will well in a pinch in this dish.

Creamy, spicy, and fresh tasting, this sauce takes a minute to make in a blender.
Creamy, spicy, and fresh tasting, this sauce takes a minute to make in a blender.

After marinating, the chicken gets cooked on the grill. Once ready, it’s served with aji sauce, a lively green sauce that’s also made in the blender with more cilantro, jalapenos, garlic, lime juice, mayonnaise and Cotija cheese.

This sauce is ridiculously good — zingy, spicy, grassy, salty-briny, and creamy. Honestly, one taste and you’ll be brainstorming other things to drizzle it on, including — everything from grilled fish, roast pork, and shrimp to a veggie wrap, turkey burger, or green salads. Or heck, simply dunk tortilla chips into it.

The chicken itself is incomparably juicy (even the breast). It’s laced with smokiness, and redolent of garlic, the warmth of cumin, and the peppery note of paprika. The soy sauce adds a deeper “meaty” note, too. This chicken has so much flavor that you could eat it on its own and not miss the sauce one bit.

But spoon on some of that addictive green gold to cap a dish, which like its creator, sports personality to spare.

Make this once, and you'll be raring to make this again and again.
Make this once, and you’ll be raring to make this again and again.

Pollo Asado a la Brasa

(Serves 4)

1/3 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

1/4 cup fresh orange juice

1 bunch cilantro

5 garlic cloves, peeled

2 tablespoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon paprika

2 tablespoons achiote paste (or Rachel Ray’s stand-in blend recipe doubled)

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 whole chicken (3 1/2 pounds), cut into 2 breast quarters and 2 leg quarters (see Note)

Lime wedges, for squeezing

Aji Sauce (see recipe below)

In a blender, combine the soy sauce, lime juice, orange juice, cilantro, garlic, cumin, paprika, achiote paste, oregano, and vegetable oil and blend until thoroughly combined, about 1 minute.

In a large bowl, combine the marinade and chicken. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or up to 12 hours.

About 30 minutes before cooking, remove the chicken from the refrigerator to allow it to come to room temperature.

Set up a charcoal or gas grill for two-zone cooking. If you’re using charcoal, bank the coals higher on one half of the grill, leaving a single layer of coals on the other half. If you’re using a gas grill, set one side to medium heat and the other side to low.

Arrange the chicken quarters across the hotter side of the grill, skin side down, and cook for 5 minutes. turn the chicken and cook for another 5 minutes. Move the chicken to the cooler side of the grill if any fat flares up, to prevent the chicken from burning. Continue to cook, turn, and move the chicken as necessary until it’s lightly browned and cooked through, and an instant-read thermometer reads 160 degrees in the thickest part of each piece.

Serve with lime wedges for squeezing and aji sauce on the side.

Note: If your chicken is closer to the 5-pound range, you may want to cut the breast into even smaller pieces so they cook in roughly the same amount of time it will take the leg quarters.

Aji Sauce

(Makes about 1 1/2 cups)

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1 bunch of fresh cilantro

2 medium jalapenos, halved and seeded

3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

1/4 cup crumbled Cotija cheese

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, plus more to taste

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste

In a blender, combine the mayonnaise, cilantro, jalapenos, garlic, Cotija, lime juice, and salt and blend until smooth, about 1 minute. Taste and add more salt or lime juice, if desired.

Adapted from “Trejo’s Cantina” by Danny Trejo

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