Actor Danny Trejo is a study in contrasts. Felon. A big, craggy-faced man with a gruff voice and multiple tattoos. A villain on the big screen.
His first book, “Trejo’s Tacos: Recipes and Stories from L.A.,” published in 2020, featured dishes from his restaurants, while his new one, “Trejo’s Cantina,” is built around the “foundational elements of Los Angeles Mexican culinary culture” with recipes for agua frescas, tacos, tostadas and empanadas that he describes as “fun and easy food with big, bold flavors.”
It also includes a generous helping of inspiration. Think you can’t do something? Trejo, 79, is here to say: “You got this. ” His remarkable life story bears out that determination. It has been well chronicled through interviews and in the 2020 film “Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo.” (Because of his busy schedule, we were unable to connect, so I listened to a half-dozen interviews he has given and re-watched the film about his life.) A heroin user by the time he was 12, Trejo was convicted of armed robbery and spent much of the 1960s in California prisons, where he took up boxing and, eventually, got sober.
His foray into acting began when he visited the set of 1985’s “Runaway Train” to counsel a fellow recovering addict and ended up landing a bit part boxing with actor Eric Roberts. There, he became reacquainted with Edward Bunker, also a former San Quentin inmate, who became a writer and movie consultant, and Trejo’s mentor as he moved into acting.
Chances are, if you’ve watched an action film in the past 35 years or so, you’ve seen him on the silver screen. He has been in more than 300 movies, working his way from villainous extra roles to leads in such varied films as the Machete and Spy Kids franchises — even portraying a hungry Marcia Brady in a Snickers commercial.
Today, his business enterprises include six restaurants — multiple locations of Trejo’s Tacos as well as Trejo’s Cantina and Trejo’s Coffee and Donuts in Los Angeles — a food line, branded merchandise, appearances in video games and a record label, plus he still finds time to speak to those in recovery and those who counsel them.
Trejo doesn’t shy away from his criminal past. He uses it to demonstrate how far a person can go with support, a willingness to change and the desire to contribute to society.
Giving back is a big part of his recovery. In the documentary and in interviews, he’s fond of saying: “Everything good that’s happened to me has happened as a direct result of me helping someone else.”
In “Trejo’s Cantina,” he describes the “prison potlucks” he and other inmates made for fellow San Quentin inmates: “If a bunch of cons can make a concrete table in a maximum security penitentiary feel like a party, imagine what you can do in your kitchen if you treat every meal, whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, like a celebration of life.”
For home cooks, he offers tips for building out a Mexican pantry and recipes for versatile salsas and sauces and big-batch party beans, as well as guidance for stocking a home bar that can serve both complex cocktails and “bada– booze-free drinks.”
His goal, he says, is to bring people together through easy-to-make food and drink.
I’ve added several of his sauces to my cooking arsenal, and I used his tips to make a Mexican feast for my birthday last month.
I picked drinks from his more than 20 zero-proof recipes — my favorites so far are the Cucumber-Jalapeño Agua Fresca and a Watermelon Agua Fresca — and paired them with his quick and easy Shrimp Tostadas With Avocado and Lime Crema.
I brought those recipes with me on a quick beach trip as well. Because Trejo was right: They bring smiles and a delicious party to the table in minutes.