Chefs to Watch 2016: Wes Avila, Guerrilla Tacos, Los Angeles

Scott Reitz

Every day in Los Angeles, a similar scene unfolds at countless locations across the city. A plain white food truck pulls up to the curb, and a generator turns over and sputters. A menu scrawled on a whiteboard hangs by the order window, while inside, cooks fire up a plancha and ready their stations. The scent of toasting masa fills the air, dancing on waves of searing meat and biting salsas as a line of hungry customers begins to gather on the sidewalk. Though the backdrop may change—from street corners and run-down lots to parking spots in front of third-wave coffee shops—the theme is the same. Gasoline may keep their cars running, but Angelenos are fueled by tacos. Then a supplier delivers a blue basket filled with live sea urchin, pulled from the cold waters of nearby Santa Barbara earlier that morning. And a closer look at the menu reveals ingredients like fried corn, medjool dates, shiso leaves and Castelvetrano olives. A tortilla filled with chorizo may be commonplace, but here pistachios, pepper escabeche and calamari join the crumbly sausage. This is what sets Wes Avila’s Guerrilla Tacos apart in a taco-rich city.

Avila, 38, grew up in nearby Pico Rivera and turned to cooking to escape life as a forklift driver. After completing cooking school, he dove headfirst into the exacting world of fine dining, where he learned a lot about ingredient handling and even more about himself. “I couldn’t see myself dedicating my home life and work life completely,” he says of the lifestyle that accompanies the chase for Michelin stars. “I respect people that can do that, but it just wasn’t for me.” So he took what he had learned and looked for a new outlet that matched his personality and style. He quickly settled on tacos.

Starting with a small taco cart, Avila has spent the last four years refining a cooking style rooted in fine ingredients and careful preparation. In one of his most popular creations, the sweetness of slowly cooked sweet potatoes is balanced with the tang of feta cheese, and those soft textures are juxtaposed with the crunch of fried corn ($4, recipe). Scallions provide pungency while salsa adds heat in a creation that would look at home on a porcelain plate.

But Avila prefers edible tableware. And by using the humble tortilla and a kitchen that bounces around the city, he makes good on his guerrilla mission to make gourmet food available on the streets. It’s tacos for the people—but really good ones.

Soon, those tacos will find their way to a permanent location. Avila and his partner have signed a lease in downtown L.A., and plan to be open in 2017. The taquero says he’s also got his eyes on New York and other cities—even in Mexico—but he’s hesitant to spread himself too thin. Scaling a business from a tiny food truck to multiple locations brings its own stresses, separate from those found in fine dining but no less intense.

Still, Avila is certain he’s made the right decision.

“I’m happy, that’s for sure,” he says. “I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Q&A with Wes Avila:

How do you describe your food?
My food is like Los Angeles. It’s a mash-up of a lot of different cultures. The main influence is Mexican, but I was born and raised in L.A. I take influences from Japanese cooking and Vietnamese. I live in Glendale and there’s a lot of Armenian and Russian community there, so I use stuff like soujouk and basturma. It’s Alta California.

What meal changed how you feel about food?
The roasted porcini at Alain Ducasse in Paris. They took a porcini with a little bit of olive oil, shallots and salt, and then roasted it in a cocotte covered in maple leaves because porcinis are harvested near maple trees. They basically took three ingredients and turned them into something absolutely incredible and simple. It smelled like the forest. It smelled so earthy. I’ve had fantastic meals but that dish specifically—it was just so simple. I couldn’t believe how good it was.

How do you find calm in your kitchen?
I just start baking. That’s my jam. I’ll just pull out old recipes and start baking. It’s very relaxing to me. It’s just an exact kind of science. Beignets, cookies, cakes, pies, custards—whatever it is I feel like producing at that moment is what I do.

When did you realize that you loved food?
Oh, it was when I was way young—maybe six or seven years old. My dad and I would go down to Mexico and we would eat seafood. I remember having chocolate clams, oysters, shrimp, and loving it. I’ve loved food since as long as I can remember.

What ingredient is central to your cooking?
Butter. Growing up Mexican-American, we would always eat tortillas with butter, just like how some people eat bread with butter. Warm up some flour tortillas, add some butter, a little bit of salt and there you go. So when I make my tacos, all of my tortillas will have a little splash of butter to help keep them moist. If someone is like vegetarian or vegan, we’ll do it with olive oil, but for the most part, it’s butter. Nobody really complains about that.

What would you do if you weren’t a chef?
I’d probably still be driving forklifts. Before I started cooking, I was a Teamster, so I’d probably be some kind of foreman by now. I’m not going to say something fake like oh, an artist or a music producer or a scientist. I’m a realist. If it wasn’t for cooking, I’d still be driving the forklift, supervising, working 12-hour shifts. That’s what we did. I was always really artistic growing up as a kid, but I never pushed it until I started getting into cooking. I just fell in love with it.

What cookbook is most important to you?
Probably Larousse Gastronomique — the bible or dictionary of French cooking. That one was always real important to me. The other one is probably Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry. The techniques and the perfection that he would use for certain sauces and certain garnishes are super-important.

What’s on your cooking bucket list?
I’ve always been into teaching kids something that is useful. There’s no home ec anymore, and I think teaching kids about food is really important. I ate like shit when I was young because nobody told me not to. So I think educating kids on food and maybe starting some kind of foundation to teach kids basic cooking skills.

What do you eat and drink on your night off?
I have beer once in a while when I go to a ballgame, or go to a soccer match, but honestly, it’s whiskey—very good, single malt whiskey. Irish, Scottish, Japanese, American, Scotch. I like Scotch.

For food, I mostly eat other people’s tacos (chuckles). Or a staple for me is Canale, [a small California-French restaurant in Atwater Village]. It’s a good little restaurant.

If you could stage at any restaurant in the world, where would you go and why?
If I had a way that I could go down and cook with different Mexican families and learn different salsas, different condiments and ingredients—to get even more in depth with the regional flavors of Mexico—I would rather do that. You’re always learning but I know how to do a lot of the things you would typically do at a stage, and as far as cooking styles go, I think I’m pretty set.

If not that, probably with Alex Atala at D.O.M in Brazil. Who else has done Brazilian cuisine? Who’s used that many ingredients from the Amazon? It’s like the final frontier—the last of the cuisines that really haven’t been explored. So I think that would be something cool to do.

Keep the joy and all can follow! Learning the classical tech allows you to do anything, with anything. Salud!

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