From Teamster to Taquero: Q&A With Guerrilla Tacos' Wes Avila

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Wes Avila at Guerrilla Tacos Photo: Hadley Tomicki

At Guerrilla Tacos, chef-owner Wes Avila brings two of California's greatest edible assets together, fusing exceptional local ingredients with killer tacos. After training under Alain Ducasse and working with Walter Manzke, the Pico-Rivera local set up his own taco stand last year in between stints with Gary Menes' acclaimed Le Comptoir. Now you can find Avila every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday outside of Downtown's Handsome Coffee Roasters, serving an ever-shifting selection of handmade tortillas and salsas with vital ingredients like artichoke, oxtail, spiagarello, red snapper sashimi, maitake mushrooms, and sweet potato. Today we pepper the chef with questions to learn more about who he is, what inspired his transformation to a taquero, and what we can expect from Guerrilla Tacos in the future. Enjoy our interview with Wes Avila.

Tacos are both a symbolic and everyday signature of L.A. What personal significance does the taco have for you?
Tacos are the food I grew up eating. When we would visit family in Ensenada, Tijuana, or Durango, when we weren't eating family meals at the house, we were eating street tacos. From tacos al vapor at Calimax to lobster tacos in Rosarito to pork tacos in Durango, it's what I grew up with. It's something so familiar to me.

With the melting pot of cultures in L.A., people accept all types of tacos. Anything from Kogi to Ricky's to traditional stuff in Huntington Park, Pico Rivera, and Santa Ana. You can put anything in a taco and if it tastes good, people will accept it. I think it's pretty representative of L.A. culture in a nutshell.

Before you turned taquero, you worked with a lot of great chefs. What are you particularly proud of in your background?
I'm proud that when I started culinary school I was a forklift driving teamster at the age of 25. It took a lot for me to give up a secure job like that to follow my heart. Every place that I've wanted to work at, I have worked at. When I said I wanted to work for Walter Manzke at L'Auberge Carmel, I made that happen. It was almost 300 miles away so I had to pick up and move. That was a big change. I didn't know anyone and I had no family or friends around me—it was a big culture shock. When I said I wanted to train in Paris, I made that happen at Le Centre de Le Formacion de Alain Ducasse. Most of all, when I said I wanted to start my taco stand, with support of my lovely wife, I made that happen too.

How did this career lead to owning your own taco stand?
The road that lead me to Guerrilla Tacos was working at Le Comptoir [Gary Menes' ingredient intensive counter-side concept]. That was the first time I dealt with customers face to face and saw their reactions to the food we were cooking. It was very gratifying to see people enjoy our work. When I began Guerrilla Tacos we were between locations at Le Comptoir and I needed to do something to make a living. It was either start over with another chef temporarily or start my own thing. I started doing tacos a few days a week and it just took off.

I chose tacos because that's my favorite food to eat. Tacos are the most accessible street food that I know of. Whether it be Tex-Mex or traditional, people know tacos everywhere. I saw it as a platform to make the taco I'd like to eat with the best ingredients I can find.

You change your taco menu every week. What are some of the favorite tacos you've made at Guerrilla since starting out?
That's like asking me to name my favorite child. I've done at least 40 different kinds of tacos since we've started, so it's hard to say. If I had to chose my top right now it would be the Cook Pigs Ranch pork belly. Cook Pigs is a newer farm I've just discovered. They have a fantastic product that I enjoy working with. I also like the sweet potato taco with braised leeks and queso panela. Another veggie that I did was charred spigarello and wild mushrooms with burnt tomato chili, which was a fantastic showcase of seasonal California produce. I did a lamb tongue birria that was fun too.

What are your own favorite tacos? Any great ones that stick out in your memory from growing up in L.A.?
Great tacos around town…I really like Ricky's. He does the best fish taco in town outside of Ensenada. The fried shrimp taco at Cuatro Vientos off Olympic is pretty good. As far as memorable tacos—I grew up in Pico Rivera and there is a small Tex-Mex burrito joint called Tonia's on Rosemead Blvd. They make a killer home-style hard shell ground beef and cheddar cheese taco. I remember growing up as a kid, that was my mom's favorite taco and we would always eat that after baseball at Pio Pico Playground. I have that with a strawberry soda every time I visit family in Pico.

What can we expect from Guerrilla Tacos in the days to come?
My immediate plan is to hustle on the streets. In the future I'd like to have a brick and mortar serving awesome craft beer with my tacos somewhere in Downtown L.A. I want to take it to the next level and potentially have a restaurant in another country. Looking at the big picture, the brick and mortar is just the second step—the taco cart was the first. I've even thought of the possibility of taking the cart to other cities until I get my brick and mortar. Maybe setting up shop in San Francisco or Seattle for a few days. I would just need to find the right contacts to make it happen. Who knows where the day will take me?