The Trejo’s brand could easily seem like a novelty, just one more among so many other celebrity brands that have come and gone. But actor Danny Trejo and his partners, Ash Shah and Jeff Georgino, have carefully focused on the design of his restaurants and worked with talented chefs and bakers to produce food that stands on its own, machete or no machete. The company also controls every step of the process, including making the hot sauce, which you can buy by the bottle, and roasting the coffee beans, which (surprise) are also on sale. The merch game here is strong. The eateries plaster Trejo’s scowling mug anywhere they can, from placemats to windows, but in spite of the hype, these tacos and donuts are good enough to ride out the changing tastes of fickle diners.
The first project out of the gate was Trejo’s Tacos, which opened in March of 2016 on South La Brea. The slick and clean style of the restaurant would be echoed in all of Trejo’s coming projects. Next came Trejo’s Cantina on Cahuenga in the Fall of 2016, ready to battle it out with Stout and the Velvet Margarita. One wall of the Cantina opens up to take advantage of the LA weather, and one wall is filled with liquor bottles and a frozen daiquiri machine churning out margaritas. It’s a comfortable place to hang, and we just hope the Hollywood crowd doesn’t turn it into another Senor Frog’s.
The tacos are around $5 each, but the superior quality of the ingredients and the generous portions make the prices a bargain. Our favorite is probably the Mexican White Shrimp Taco with cherry tomatoes, slaw, and Fresno chile. The fresh shrimp are plump and sweet. A close second would be the Pulled Beef Brisket Taco with Cotija cheese served in a little cage of tortilla strips (which is also Danny Trejo’s favorite). The Fried Chicken Taco with chipotle cream and pico de gallo is served in a lettuce cup, perhaps to cater to the low-carb customer. I found the chicken chunks were too large for the lettuce, making the entire thing unwieldy. Nevertheless, the fried chicken was outstanding.
Trejo’s has taken vegetarians and vegans into consideration. The cauliflower taco has a deep, roasted flavor with the kick of pickled onions. The tofu taco is deep fried to give it a nice crunch, and it also benefits from the pickled onions. The only taco that didn’t impress my vegan tasters was the jackfruit, which was described as sour and mushy. The kitchen did add fried tortilla strips to try to improve the texture, and maybe that is just the nature of jackfruit.
Trejo’s Donuts, which just opened in May, might seem at first glance to be nothing more than a passing trend. The gaudy pink building that sits on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland is adorned with a giant mural of the grimacing Trejo. The donuts are also pricy, weighing in at about $4.50 a donut. But I would happily pay those prices and even wait in line for my favorites. According to Eater, “Pastry chef Dianne Crame, formerly at BOA Steakhouse, The Bazaar, and Patina, is behind the culinary operation here.”
The donuts are inspired by Mexican flavors — the “Abuelita” with the chocolatey flavor of the cocoa brand, “Margarita,” with an intense lime kick, and “Cafe con Leche,” which could replace your morning coffee. Our favorites, though, are the “Horchata,” filled with rich horchata cream, and the savory “Nacho” donut, covered with cheese and jalapenos. The Nacho is the only donut we have ever eaten that we think would go really well with beer.
Far from any Hollywood douchery, the fourth and newest outpost of the growing Trejo empire is a Trejo’s Cantina in Pasadena, which opened in June. The room is spacious and comfortable. The decor follows a subtle Mexican theme with a turquoise ceiling and sarapes on the wall. The restaurant never feels crowded, although the acoustics can make the room pretty loud, even when it’s not bustling. There is a separate bar area that is perfect for drinks after work, although their Happy Hour menu hasn’t been developed yet. It is an adaptable space, perfect for lunch with the office, or a family get-together.
The Pasadena Cantina’s menu is almost identical to the Hollywood Cantina’s, sans the escabeche and enchiladas. I love the Corchata, an iced horchata latte, thick and sweet like Thai iced coffee. The guacamole is simple, just perfectly ripe avocado cut into chunks, then sprinkled with lime, pistachios, and raw serrano chiles. The Mexican Salad and Bowl, topped with the protein of your choice, are a good choice for a light lunch. The corn in the Bowl is a little too sweet, but as I said, they will happily make substitutions. Chef Matt Sprister just added a dinner menu, getting fancy with dishes like shrimp and scallop ceviche, a whole branzino, a 16 oz bone-in ribeye for $45 and chocolate flan.
Next, Trejo will be opening a location at the new USC Village mixed-use project, possibly as early as August. Their new motto should be “Veni, Vidi, Vici.”