Chef Wes Avila was driving down Olympic Boulevard near downtown Los Angeles one day in 2012 when he passed through the street-vendor paradise of Mercado Olympic. For three glorious blocks, entrances to piñata shops and party supply stores are blocked by an endless stream of non-permitted taco carts, mobile pupuserías, and churro makers. Taking in the scene, something clicked.
At the time, Avila was working shifts for chef Gary Menes, helping run his then pop-up restaurant concept, Le Comptoir, and was on the hunt for some supplementary income. Having polished his fine-dining chops while working under Walter Manzke in Carmel before studying with the legendary Alain Ducasse in France, Avila saw an opportunity in the taco stands that dotted the sidewalks of L.A. and splurged on one of his own, setting off a chain of events that would recode the DNA of Mexican street food as we know it.
“I didn’t do any research or due diligence. My dumb ass just thought, ‘I’m going to make tacos and I’m going to make them better,’” he says. “That cardboard-ass carne asada everyone serves is lame, and when you see vegetable tacos, it’s always button mushrooms with cheese or squash. I know how to cook meat and vegetables from some of the best chefs in L.A. So I figured I could use those skills to bring it to the street.”
“The tortilla’s just a vessel—a blank canvas to put whatever the fuck I want onto. I wasn’t thinking of being traditional. I have to be true to myself.”
The result, Guerrilla Tacos, launched in August 2012, with Avila setting up a makeshift tent and griddle in front of a coffee shop a few days each week. Though he started serving riffs on familiar standbys, Avila quickly moved into his own creative territory by applying French cooking techniques and Southern California ingredients. Word spread quickly about an underground chef with fine-dining credentials slinging a rotation of gourmet tacos from a sidewalk. L.A. Times critic Jonathan Gold wrote: “You can also treat Guerrilla as a kind of tasting-menu restaurant whose dishes happen to be composed on tortillas instead of on fancy plates…You’re not going to find cooking like this anywhere else but L.A.”
Over the last four years, Avila says he has served nearly 200 different tacos, quesadillas, and tostadas, featuring everything from multi-colored cauliflower to locally-sourced uni. At his truck, you might find a sweet potato taco with almond chile and microgreens on a blue corn tortilla; another day, it might be a tuna poke tostada with furikake, gooseberries, and bull’s blood.
“The tortilla’s just a vessel—a blank canvas to put whatever the fuck I want onto,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking of being traditional. I have to be true to myself.”
In L.A., Avila has become part of a crew of second-generation Mexican-American chefs who are ushering in a new era of modern Mexican cuisine in Southern California (a trend dubbed “Alta California” by taco lord Bill Esparza). As his influence as a taco visionary continues to ripple outward, with cities around the country now taking the handheld Mexican street food more seriously, Avila is gearing up for a second phase. Up next is a Guerrilla Tacos cookbook and a brick-and-mortar version of his famous truck, where there will be a few permanent fixtures—but no less than two daily specials, so the chef can continue to explore the taco taxonomy
“You’re only as good as your last dish,” Avila says. “If everyone loves the last dish you put out, that’s cool. Enjoy it for a week but then you have to move on. I don’t want to dwell on old shit.” From champagne-fueled staff meals, to a perfect trio of tomato water, here Wes Avila reflects on the 10 dishes that made his career.
When I was a child, my mom did most of the cooking. She made a couple of traditional things for my dad or grandpa, but for us, she would do something different; we were picky kids who wanted fast food. The albondigas soup was our favorite thing she’d make for us when we were young. We were latch-key kids, so she would always have it ready for us when we got home from school. My mom used chopped mint, cilantro, and rice mixed with the meat. It had an herbacous quality to it. I make it like that to this day, and add whatever else is in the fridge—fried eggs, fried ham. That’s the first dish that really stuck with me. (Photo: blueapron.com)
Chicharrón Burrito at Tonia’s (Pico Rivera, CA)
I grew up in Pico Rivera, and there used to be a restaurant called Tonia’s by the Little League field at Pio Pico Playground. It was a little shack on Rosemead Boulevard. They had the best bean-and-cheese burritos and served four-finger sandwiches. It was old-school and the prices hadn’t gone up since the ’80s. Maybe that’s why they closed last year. But my favorite thing they served were these chicharrón burritos. They braised chicharrónes then poured a green tomatillo sauce and cheddar cheese into a burrito, and you could order it wet with rajas. If you opted for rajas, you’d get these big Anaheim chiles that were so fucking good. It was satisfying and comforting. (Photo: Yelp/Phil A.)
Water Course at L’Auberge Carmel
When I first looked up L’Auberge, I didn’t know where Carmel was, so I went up there to eat at the restaurant one Christmas around 2004. It was a crazy experience—all these small, intricate, beautiful, perfect dishes. It wasn’t rustic and it wasn’t simple. Walter Manzke took me into the kitchen and it was spotless. The opportunity sounded like a challenge where I could learn more techniques, so I used my savings and moved up there to work with him. Walter cooked everyday. He didn’t supervise and then bounce. It was a temple. For the first course, we would do three different shot glasses of tomato water: salsa water, Bloody Mary water, and gazpacho water. Each one had a different topping, and each liquid had to be pureed and strained so it was purified. Everything he made had four, five, six components, and each one of those had four, five or six components of their own. I’d never seen anything like that before. (Photo: Yelp/Manda Bear B.)
Lamb rack with parsnip puree
After coming back from L’Auberge, I had to find something that paid, so I got a job at a country club in Palos Verdes. When I went in for the interview, they had me make them something on the fly, instructing me to use anything in the walk-in. So I prepared a brown-butter-poached lamb rack with parsnip puree. It was very much in the French-style I learned. I’d seen the sous chef at L’Auberge cook it 100 times, and I it didn’t seem that hard to execute. I also did a raw dish using yellowtail, yuzu juice, and three kinds of citrus. That wasn’t my food, though. It was Walter’s. Back then I hadn’t put my spin on it. (Photo: Flickr/Stu_Spivack)
Skate wing with pig tails at Palate Food + Wine
I worked for Gary Menes for a few months right before I was about to go to Spain. He made these skate wings with braised pig tails on there. It was soft, crunchy, and porky, and it had a pistachio and grapefruit relish. I left to Spain with these flavors in my mouth. Ever since then I’ve asked him, “When are you going to do that again?” but he always wants to change it up. I learned a lot of stuff about how to cook grains, fish, and pork, and how to not be afraid to try new things. For me, the food Gary was doing back then was the fucking shit. As a young chef it really blew my mind. (Photo: Facebook/Gary Menes)
In France, I attended Le Centre de Formation d’Alain Ducasse, which isn’t really a school but more like an incubator for Alain’s staff. I went to learn from his chefs. There, I had one of the simplest dishes that blew my mind. It starts with a cast-iron pan covered with foraged chestnut leaves. Then you take whole porcinis, cut them in half, toss them with olive oil, minced shallots, and salt, place back in the pan, wrap leaves around it, and roast it for 30 to 40 minutes. The way you’d eat it was like some sort of unveiling. I’ve never had anything so simple and so perfect. It only has four ingredients! It showed me the complete power of restraint. Start with very good ingredients. Don’t get the bullshit.
Oaxacan-style squash soup
I went to Oaxaca to re-connect with my roots. There was fruit I’d never seen before, and tomatoes at the market that were the most tomato-y tomatoes—not sweet, but more like a rich heirloom tomato. All of the products really had me wanting to seek out ingredients that were perfect. This woman there made a soup out of the scraps of a squash plant. She used a chicken-stock base and she added vines from leftover squash plants, added ground corn, and seasoned it with salt and pepper. (Photo: callmeafoodlover.com)
I quit the country club and started working with Gary at his Le Comptoir pop-up. During that time, I needed to make extra money, so I starting selling tacos. Something that influenced me around that time was the staff meal I would make for everyone. We would take all the scraps of beef and we would gather all the wine that was opened and unfinished after the shift; from there, we would eat tacos and drink champagne. I started with simple beef tacos. I’d collect heirloom tomatoes from downstairs, puree them with a little bit of garlic, and come up with a simple salsa that I learned from Rosario at L’Auberge. Those were first tacos I made. (Photo: Erin Mosbaugh)
The tacos I did at Guerilla Tacos were simple at first: chicken and beef made on a habachi in the truck. The first taco I made that was different used potatoes with chile de árbol and Oaxacan cheese. I melted it like quesadilla and added roasted corn with the potatoes. It was like opening Pandora’s box. I started making all kinds of vegetable tacos by experimenting at my house. I haven’t done that potato-and-corn taco since then, but that’s the one where people were like, “What the fuck?” That pushed me even more. Nobody was doing tacos like that. (Photo: lataco.com)
Sea urchin with tuna taco
It all starts with my ingredients, and luckily you meet people along the way that help you find the right ones. When Gary and I were working together, we went to wineries in Santa Barbara. I befriended a winemaker, and one day he told me he had a high school buddy who fishes off the coast and gathers urchin. I said I’d buy some, but I didn’t know how to work live urchin; it was always in a little pre-snapped clean case from Japan. I Googled how to open it—you just crack it—and we figured it out. Urchin always tastes good on fish, so I put it with tuna on the taco. All those ingredients are from here. When it’s really local—it’s albacore from the Pacific and Santa Barbara sea urchin on top with olive oil from Adams Ranch. (Photo: Erin Mosbaugh)