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'Guerrilla Tacos': Street Food With A High-End Pedigree

Roasted pumpkin tacos from chef Wes Avila's cookbook, <em>Guerrilla Tacos</em>.
Dylan James Ho and Jeni Afuso
Courtesy of Ten Speed Press
Roasted pumpkin tacos from chef Wes Avila's cookbook, Guerrilla Tacos.

How many taco trucks do you know that not only have a cookbook but a theme song? Wes Avila's Guerrilla Tacos truck does – and has once again made food critic Jonathan Gold's influential list of favorite Los Angeles eateries.

Five years ago, Avila was working as a sous chef at a pop up restaurant called Le Comptoir. It was only open four days a week, and Avila says he wasn't making enough money to cover his rent. So he bought a simple food cart. He used his last $167 on ingredients. Then he and a friend began selling tacos in the arts district in downtown Los Angeles without the required health department permits.

"We were kind of bending the law, not necessarily breaking the law. We had to move around so we wouldn't get caught — you know, like guerrilla warfare," Avila says. "That's why we had that name, because we'd be in random alleys, random streets, being kind of renegade like that."

Until this year, street vending was illegal in LA, with fines up to $1,000 and six months in jail. Avila says the police shut down his food cart twice. After that, he says, he scraped and borrowed and drained his savings account to lease a proper food truck — a 1983 Chevy painted Dodgers blue. Then he says he applied for and picked up every permit needed to be legit and was back in business within a week.

He says the same cops who busted him came back. Avila asked them if they wanted some food.

"They're like, 'Yeah,' " he recalls. "They were very welcoming after that."

This is not your tia's taco truck. For starters, there's that theme song we mentioned — a trance tune with the refrain "Baby want to eat tacos." (Avila's nephew, Robert Avila, also known as DJ Robyoheart, produced the track in honor of his uncle.) On the menu at Guerrilla Tacos, you find wild boar tacos and thick-cut bacon tacos with fried egg and pickled onion. There are wild porcini mushrooms and corn quesadillas, and Thai snapper tostadas with pine nuts and tomatillos.

"I like to use ingredients that keep us interested in what we're doing," says Avila, whose specialty are the sweet potato tacos.

Avila's sweet potato tacos
Dylan James Ho and Jeni Afuso / Courtesy of Ten Speed Press
Courtesy of Ten Speed Press
Avila's sweet potato tacos

He uses bite-sized roasted Japanese sweet potatoes, coated with butter and a homemade salsa of almond chile with scallions and tomatillos. That's topped with salty Oaxacan cheese and crunchy corn nuts and served on corn tortillas.

Avila uses fresh, local gourmet ingredients — even hard-to-get top-quality pork. He says he was inspired by his Mexican-American family's home cooking.

"I was always, like, the fat kid that loved to eat," he says.

Growing up in Pico Rivera, east of LA, he savored his Tia Melinda's potato tacos; his dad's refried bean, eggs, queso fresco and avocado tacos; and his mom's huge Sunday morning breakfasts. "She'd put a scoop of lard and then a pack of bacon, a pack of sausages, like five or six pieces of like bologna and spam, so it'd be this big thing of cooking breakfast — preserved meats, eggs however you want them — with Wonder Bread," he recalls.

When he was 15, Avila's mom died; she had chronic bronchitis. After that, his dad took over the cooking.

In high school, Avila played football. With his brother, he also began DJing at East LA house parties.

"Deep house and hip hop is what I spun," he says. "We'd do quinceañeras, weddings, house parties. At the time, the thing that was so, like, normal was a lot of violence. ... Kids would go there to have fun, then I'll never forget there was always, the cholos [who] would come and be wanting to crash parties and not pay, and getting in fights," he says. "There would be shootings and it's, like, we were like 15, 16 years old. We would scatter and once the adrenaline was gone, we'd go, 'Oh, where's the next party at?' "

After high school, Avila briefly went to community college. Then he and his brother decided to work at the same cardboard factory where their dad had labored for 20 years.

"I worked as a teamster, forklift driver, machine packer," Avila says. "If you would see how hot it is to put wax into boxes, you know the wax is running 227 degrees. Kitchens are hot but it's nothing compared to working on a cascader in a box factory for 12 to 16 hours."

Avila did this for seven years before going to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu. He then worked for fine dining chefs, including Alain Ducasse and Walter Manzke.

Now, Avila is leading a new wave of LA chefs — children of immigrants, classically trained in French cuisine — who blur the lines between high and low and, in his case, leaving upscale restaurants to serve street food.

"Guerrilla Tacos is the emblematic restaurant of what's going on in Los Angeles right now," says Los Angeles Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold. He's been a Guerrilla Tacos fan ever since its food cart days, when he'd stop by to eat and talk with Avila about the Dodgers.

"Instead of sitting down for $150 tasting meal, you're paying $4 or $5 a taco, and you're sitting on a curb," Gold says. "It's radical. It's revolutionary."

This fall, Avila released his first cookbook, Guerrilla Tacos, showcasing his inventive takes on tacos. Early next year, Guerrilla Tacos will complete its journey from food cart to food truck to an actual brick-and-mortar restaurant in downtown LA's arts district.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.