The man behind one of L.A.'s most cherished trucks is putting down roots this summer. “I like texture, a little grit," Avila says. "I’m like that, and my truck is like that, so the restaurant will be, too.”
There’s this one story Wes Avila likes to tell. He’s the celebrated chef-owner of Guerrilla Tacos in L.A., a food truck known for slinging duck heart quesadillas and foie gras tacos in the streets of Silverlake and the Arts District. He’s graced the pages of several magazines, including Food & Wine, and L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold has kept the restaurant as a mainstay on his annual 101 Best Restaurants list.
Years ago, before all of the buzz, Avila was serving up Cooked Pigs Ranch pork belly tacos, and this guy comes over.
“He was like, five dollar tacos?” Avila says. “He goes, ‘Do you know where we’re at?’ I got so defensive, and I was like, ‘Yeah motherfucker, I know where I’m at, I’m from L.A., where are you from, are you even from here?’ And he was like, ‘Whoa, hey man, it’s just expensive, a five dollar taco. I can get these tacos in Highland Park for a dollar.’ And I was like, ‘Take your ass to Highland Park then.’”
Avila asked his wife to hand him a plate, and she gave him a larger one. “I put the pork belly down, put a swoosh of the salsa, put the little herbs in the corner, put the dust of pepper, and I was like, 'Here, 15 dollars as an appetizer in a restaurant. So fuck off. And the guy was like, ‘Oh you got a point man; I’ll take one.’ And then he was like, ‘That’s pretty good. Let me get another one then.’”
Avila was incensed. “And this wasn’t like blue collar Latino Mexicans or anything like that; this was from a dude who obviously is not from L.A.”
That was six years ago now, when Avila had just started his food cart. Come early this summer, Guerrilla Tacos will open its first brick and mortar in the Arts District, right across the river from Boyle Heights. It’ll be right across the street from Everson Royce Bar, and as excellent as their cocktails are, Avila will be slinging some of his own.
“We’re currently interviewing people to head that up,” he says of the cocktail program. The space is being entirely gutted, although Avila promises that the restaurant won’t sport the minimalist white walls of an Apple store or Blue Bottle Coffee.
“It’s not going to be like a coffee shop in 2012,” he says. “I like texture, a little grit. I’m like that, and my truck is like that, so the restaurant will be, too.”
The forthcoming restaurant will take over the space of the beloved La Reyna restaurant, a counter-style Mexican diner that, at night, served caramelized trompo-roasted al pastor on a cart outside.
“We didn’t take it over and kick them out,” Avila says. “They lost their lease and it was vacant for like six months before we came in, and we’re like alright, let’s get this space.”
Avila acknowledges that this story might smack of gentrification if a few details were different, but that’s not the case. Avila is L.A.’s native son, and everyone seems to be celebrating the expansion of what is one of the most game-changing restaurants in the city.
“There are hyper-regional tacos here,” Avila says of the L.A. culinary landscape. James Beard Award-winning writer Bill Esparza has written much about the pockets of communities from Oaxaca, Sinaloa, and Sonora that have established themselves here.
“You can find cuisine that’s differentiated by pueblo here, and each one is totally different,” Avila says. As Esparza pointed out this past weekend at a panel at the L.A. Times Festival of Books—where he shared the stage with Avila—Los Angeles is home to the second biggest community of people of Oaxacan origin outside Oaxaca.
Without resorting to the word “authentic,” a term that has come to be regarded as problematic in food writing, suffice it to say that Los Angeles offers cuisine that rivals anything in quality and form to what you’ll find in the streets of Mexico City or Oaxaca—here’s looking at you, Guelagetza, or Poncho’s Tlayudas.
Avila’s duck heart and almond salsa tacos obviously don’t fit into that traditional genre. They’re less a direct translation of place than modern Mexican, that movement for which Enrique Olvera has become so well recognized. Come the end of this year, he, too, will be coming to Los Angeles. He will be opening another location of Cosme in the Arts District, a stone’s throw from Bestia.
Though Olvera’s cuisine is often described as modern Mexican, Avila prefers the term "Alta California." It’s a term popularized by Esparza, who uses it to differentiate modern Mexican cuisine in California from its counterpart in Mexico. The term literally translates to “Upper California” because it historically referred to the northernmost part of a territory held first by Spain and then Mexico—what is present day Southern California.
Esparza uses it to refer to chefs who “earned their stripes in the hallowed temples of California cuisine,” following in the inheritance of Alice Waters who venerated the vegetable. This California lens is reflected in the vegan sweet potato, almond salsa-slathered taco that is Guerrilla Taco’s most popular. Esparza is also using the term to refer specifically to chefs who came from LA’s Chicano neighborhoods: East LA, Pico Rivera, Pacoima, Huntington Park, and Whittier.
“I couldn’t make this food if I was in New York,” Avila says. It’s not so much that Alta California is defined by its local ingredients—a foregone expectation these days, with the dilution of “farm to table”—as it is a casual approach to cooking and eating.
“Here in L.A., I can’t think of a single restaurant where I have to wear a jacket. I can get by with a polo shirt,” he says.
These days, despite Avila’s success and critical acclaim, he’s still the one driving his Guerrilla Tacos truck back from Coachella at 3 a.m., catching an hour nap on the cardboard boxes in the back. (True story, this just happened.)
“I don’t want to front, I do get to take time off, but it’s still hard work with a truck,” he says. “Imagine all the normal problems with a restaurant, and then on top of that, imagine your brakes going out, your car breaking down, parking restrictions, getting tickets.”
The forthcoming brick and mortar, then, will give Avila reason to celebrate—and we’ll be celebrating with him, if only for the added bonus of being able to get his tacos all day, every day.