An unassuming blue food truck sits in front of Handsome Coffee Roasters—a prized coffee shop gem in Los Angeles’ Arts District where creative, loyal, and highly fashionable, coffee fans congregate. A small black sign rests on the front windshield that reads “Guerilla Tacos,” set in white Helvetica. As far as design goes, it doesn’t get any simpler than that. Along the sidewalk, a long line of hungry customers in all shapes and sizes—from businessmen to policemen to caffeinated hipsters—patiently wait their turn to place an order (with intense fear of food running out).
Across the street, a young gentleman is running for dear life towards the blue truck as if it were the last source of food in the world.
“Oh my God! They’re going to run out of tacos!” he cries out, getting the attention of others, including my very good friend, and Life & Thyme filmmaker, Nathan Sage. “Looks like I should place my order. Now.”
Nathan too leaves everything behind and makes his way to this truck that has obviously developed some sort of cult following and now piqued my curiosity.
When I first caught wind of Guerrilla Tacos, my initial thought was that it was like any other taco truck, serving up carne asada with cilantro and onions. Instead, their menu includes delicacies such as: Cooks Pig Ranch sausage with poached egg, live Santa Barbara Uni with soft scrambled eggs on a brioche bun, wild boar taco with Anaheim chile rajas & raw tomatillo chile, Fluke tostada with Satsuma tangerines, Fresno peppers & ponzu, or the black winter truffle quesadilla with a fried egg, parmesan, & beef jus.
And that’s just today: tomorrow, the menu will be something different.
I had to order one of everything (or at least one of anything that was still left). Upon taking the first bite, I was transported into a culinary trance where new flavors tantalized my taste buds, making me feel like I was experiencing a new level of fine dining with bold, expensive tastes.
It was good. It was too good. It was so good it must be illegal somewhere.
For most of these dishes, the tortilla was no more than a vehicle used to explore ingredients and flavors that may have nothing to do with Mexican food, but everything to do with the creative mind of Chef Wes Avila. I had to talk to him and hear the story of this native Angeleno who grew up in Pico Rivera, East LA.
Did food always play a role growing up?
My mom always cooked but my dad never cooked. My mom passed away when I was fifteen and she was the main person cooking. After she passed away, my dad took over. My mom’s food was simple, like braised meat, mashed potatoes, albondigas, chile rellenos… kinda Tex-Mex-ish. When my dad took over and started cooking for us, he was doing some stuff that were even simpler but really, really good. During the holidays, he always makes menudo—even until this day.
In high school, I was a DJ. During my teen years in the 90’s, it was all about the house party scene, so we would do a lot of underground parties, house parties, and raves, where I would DJ a lot. After high school, I had no clue what I wanted to do. So I went to go work for my dad, drove a forklift, and became a teamster for six or seven years. During that time, it was depressing. Working 12 or 14 hour days, it paid really well, but it was fucking boring. I decided to just start cooking. I quit my job, gave up all my benefits, and went to culinary school.
First job I took after I graduated was at L’Auberge Carmel with Walter Manzke. I did that, then came back down to LA, worked odd chef jobs at different spots. I met Gary Menes through Walter and helped him open Palate. When I left Palate, I got married and went on a crazy European vacation. Came back for a week, and went back out. I flew back out to Paris and went to school at Le Centre de Le Formacion de Alain Ducasse, right outside of Paris. I was there for a while before I came back and started working with Gary again.
What was the turning point from fine dining to street food for you?
We were doing a pop-up with Le Comptoir [Gary Menes] that was only open three days a week, so I needed to supplement the income. It was all fine doing that shortened kind of shift, but I didn’t have enough to live. I had loans, bills, living expenses, so I bought the taco cart I started with for a taco themed party that I did with friends and family. I had a lot of people in the industry that would just bring whatever meat they wanted, and we’d gather and cook it at a park in Glendale. This was like May of 2012.
That August, I hit up Tyler Wells [of Handsome Coffee Roasters] and said, “Hey! I have this taco cart. Mind if I set up there?” He said, “Yeah, that location and spot is open if you want to come and setup your cart. Bring it tomorrow.”
So that was a Tuesday and the event was Wednesday. I was like, “Holy shit!” I had to get produce and product that day, and prep it all that day. When I got there, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but set up my cart for family and friends. We did okay the first week and a bit better the second week, but eventually people figured it out. In the month or two after that, LA Weekly got wind of it; Garrett—one of the guys at Squid Ink—wrote about us and we started adding days.
Was there ever an actual plan for it?
Fuck no. Guerrilla style! No permits, no permission, no nothing, dude. I mean, I know what I’m doing as far as handling protein. That’s all common sense in terms of food handling. That’s why we chose the name Guerrilla Tacos—we would just setup in random spots. We would set up on the street and boom, we would start rolling. I started getting crazier with ingredients and I was getting sick of using the same stuff. So I started doing a little seafood and breakfast stuff. Now it’s almost surreal that I can get whatever the fuck I want and change the menu. Get really good stuff and present it at a reasonable price without the overhead.
Where are you finding inspiration?
Everywhere. Every restaurant I go to, every restaurant I’ve been to, past childhood memories, the farmers market, vacation. I went to Hawaii, came back, and started doing poke. Wherever I go, I kind of take influence and just roll it into my own thing.
So a taco can be used for any culture or cuisine.
For sure. I almost see it as a vessel—like a plate. Someone told me one time, “Oh, your tacos are expensive. I get some in Highland Park for a dollar!”
I was like, “You know, you can go around the block and go to Del-Taco and get three for 75 cents, if price is an issue.” I got one of our plates, put the plate down, plated it intricately with no tortilla, spread it out, put the sauce with a little swoosh, and said, “You would pay $25 for this, I’m charging you $6 and you’re complaining. So go fuck yourself dude.”
We try to get the best stuff and present it—you don’t have to do too much to it. You get a good item, you don’t have to fuck with it too much, you know? Even our vegetables; we treat them like a protein. Nothing is muddled.
What are some of the struggles you’ve run into operating a food truck?
With the food truck, it’s mostly exhaustion because it just doesn’t stop. We run service, and people don’t see the 5-6 hours of prep before and two hours after for breakdown. Then a whole day for shopping around. It isn’t even a job, it’s a lifestyle. I live it, get Sunday evening and Monday off. I don’t take any jobs on Monday. It’s my time to spend with my wife and family.
As far as struggles go, it’s like, “Oh, did I fill gas?” Or shit’s falling over. We’ve gotten used to the driving part of it. As far as the cart struggles, that’s a whole other bag of worms. You get haters and they call the cops on you to come and shut you down.
What’s your perspective on LA street food?
It’s awesome. On Olympic, there’s a bunch of vendors who will sell different tacos, tortas, little gorditas, and shit I’ve never even heard of. You’ll see the chorizo hanging out like you would in parts of Mexico. You just have to know where to find it.
LA is finally starting to be recognized for its culinary talents but the street food was always there.
It’s always been here. It’s not like we appeared out of anywhere—it’s the wild west. People just don’t pay attention to LA but now it’s the total opposite. LA is the place to be. You don’t have to follow old rules and there’s really not an old guard. You just have to keep evolving yourself as a cook, chef, and any part of food service. Times move fast.
Hopefully brick and mortar—a flagship. I don’t want to just be in LA. I want to be in Chicago, Brazil, Tokyo, Hawaii… I don’t see an end to it. I don’t want to become complacent. I’m always pursuing something better. Always, always, always. Or else you become that guy.