Shrimp Tostadas with Avocado and Lime Crema; Watermelon Agua Fresca; and Cucumber Agua Fresca. Photo for The Washington Post by Rey Lopez

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.

He also stars in kids’ movies and is a father, restaurateur, businessman, volunteer drug counselor and motivational speaker who has been in recovery for more than 50 years. In recent years, he has added cookbook author to his résumé.

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.”

Food has long been one of the ways that he has built community – even in prison.

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.

Shrimp Tostadas with Avocado and Lime Crema

4 servings (makes 8 tostadas)


Total time: 40 mins

Make ahead: The crema can be made up to 1 week in advance; the shrimp 1 day ahead.

Storage: Refrigerate the shrimp for up to 2 days; the crema for up to 1 week.

Substitutions: Don’t have cilantro? Top with parsley.




1 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons adobo sauce from canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, sriracha or your favorite chili-garlic sauce, such as sambal oelek

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, plus more if needed

1/4 teaspoon fine salt


2 avocados, halved and pitted


Juice of 1 lime

1/4 teaspoon fine salt


1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 pound jumbo shrimp (16-20 per pound), peeled and deveined



8 (6-inch) tostada shells

Quick pickled red onions (optional)

1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves

Lime wedges, for serving

Make the crema: In a medium bowl, combine sour cream, adobo sauce, lime juice and salt. Stir until thoroughly combined.

Make the avocado mash: Scoop the avocado flesh into a medium bowl. Add the lime juice and salt, and mash with a fork until smooth enough to spread it on a tostada.


Make the shrimp: In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the shrimp in a single layer and cook until pink and opaque on one side, about 3 minutes. Turn the shrimp over and cook the other side until pink and opaque throughout, about 4 minutes more. (If you buy smaller shrimp, reduce the cooking time.)

Transfer the shrimp to a cutting board. When cool enough to handle, cut into 1/2-inch pieces.

Assemble the tostadas: Spread about 2 tablespoons avocado mash on each tostada all the way to the edge. Top with about 1/4 cup chopped shrimp. Drizzle a scant 2 tablespoons of the chipotle crema over the shrimp, top with pickled onions, if using. Sprinkle with cilantro leaves and serve with lime wedges on the side.

Nutrition | Per serving (2 tostadas): 504 calories, 27g carbohydrates, 220mg cholesterol, 34g fat, 7g fiber, 28g protein, 12g saturated fat, 728mg sodium, 3g sugar

Watermelon Agua Fresca

4 servings (makes 2 cups)


This refreshing agua fresca, from actor and chef Danny Trejo, stars watermelon, whirred up with sugar, lime juice and a pinch of cayenne pepper, and is topped with a cube of the fruit coated in spicy Tajín. In his cookbook “Trejo’s Catina,” Trejo says it reminds him of drinks he would buy from street carts when he was growing up in Los Angeles.

Where to buy: Tajín is available in well-stocked supermarkets, Latin markets and online.

Storage: Refrigerate for up to 4 days.

Total time: 15 mins


2 cups (12 to 14 ounces) cubed watermelon, plus 4 bite-size cubes for serving


Tajín (optional)

8 ounces water

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 1/2 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper




Place the 4 bite-size watermelon cubes on a plate and, if using, lightly dust them on all sides with the Tajín.

In a blender, combine the remaining 2 cups of the watermelon, water, sugar, lime juice and cayenne and blend until smooth. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve into a 1-quart container, gently pressing down with a flexible spatula to extract all of the juice. (The more you press down, the cloudier the drink will be. Discard the pulp, or use it to make smoothies.)

To serve, pour the mixture into ice-filled rocks or favorite similar-size cocktail glasses and garnish each with a cube of watermelon.

Nutrition | Per serving (1/2 cup): 26 calories, 7g carbohydrates, 0mg cholesterol, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, 0g saturated fat, 0mg sodium, 6g sugar

Cucumber-Jalapeño Agua Fresca


4 servings (makes 4 cups)

Cooling cucumber and a bit of jalapeño are whirred together to make this refreshing nonalcoholic drink, with just a hint of heat, from a recipe in Danny Trejo’s “Trejo’s Cantina” cookbook.

Storage: Refrigerate for up to 4 days.

Total time: 15 mins


1 cup water


1 medium cucumber (10 ounces), sliced

1 (1/4-inch) slice jalapeño

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

4 teaspoons granulated sugar

Fine salt



16 ounces club soda, chilled

Lime slices or cucumber strips, for garnish (optional)


In a blender, combine the water, cucumber, jalapeño, lime juice and sugar and process until smooth.

Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a pint container, pressing down with a flexible spatula. (Discard the solids or save them to add to a smoothie.)

Add a pinch of salt, stir and taste for balance, adding add a bit more if necessary. If not serving right away, cover and refrigerate until needed.

To serve, pour 1/2 cup of the mixture into each ice-filled Collins glass. Add 1/2 cup club soda per glass and gently stir to incorporate. Garnish with lime slices or cucumber strips, if desired, and serve.

Nutrition | Per serving (1 cup): 27 calories, 6g carbohydrates, 0mg cholesterol, 0g fat, 1g fiber, 1g protein, 0g saturated fat, 100mg sodium, 5g sugar

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