How Wes Avila Built A Taco Empire By Pursuing Individuality Rather Than Authenticity
A new book, and a permanent home on the horizon for the L.A.-based chef.
November 8, 2017 ● 4 min read
By Richie Nakano | Photographs copyright © 2017 by Dylan James Ho and Jeni Afuso
Cooking, it goes without saying, is hard. (And still, we'll keep saying it.)
Much has been written about the long hours, the mental stress, and the toll it takes on the body.
Cooking on a food truck is all of these things magnified. It means hauling ingredients to a commissary, then to the truck, and back again. It’s long hours in a tiny space, at the mercy of weather, traffic, and breakdowns—automotive or otherwise. Any sort of convenience or luxury afforded by a permanent address is thrown out of the (passenger side) window.
It’s these daily battles that often catapult a mobile food business to new creative heights. The overwhelming desire to keep pushing, to survive long enough to claim brick and mortar status—that fight is one that echoes far and wide throughout the culinary world. It's daily, hourly, minute-by-minute persistence, on display for everyone to see.
This is certainly the case with Guerrilla Tacos, the Los Angeles-based phenom that spawned the kind of rabid following that defined the golden days of food truckery. After years of hustle, Avila will break ground on a new location sometime next year, but first: a brand new cookbook, Guerilla Tacos: Recipes From The Streets of L.A., co-authored by Richard Parks III (eater of those crazy good tacos, VICE contributor, and, according to his Twitter profile, haver of good vibes.) The book is bright and scrappy, just like the truck and it serves not only as a snapshot of Avila’s cooking at this moment in time, but of the larger political context in which he cooks.
“This is not ‘authentic’ Mexican food,” the introduction reads. “It’s personal. I couldn’t give a shit about authenticity, especially when it comes to tacos. A taco isn’t just asada, pastor, and carnitas, with chopped onions and cilantro and your choice of salsa. The truth is there is no such thing as an authentic taco. Taco makers have always known this.”
At Guerilla Tacos, yuzu and kiwi berries can accompany raw tomatillo chile on a tostada. Scallions are at home among fried corn nuts. Avila grew up in the Pico Rivera neighborhood of southeastern Los Angeles, and came up through the kitchens of Alain Ducasse and Walter Mantzke. As he considers the next step of his culinary journey, he is uniquely positioned to deeply impact the food scene at a time when the gulf between the highest of the high and the lowest of the low continues to shift; chefs trained in fine dining apply their techniques to more casual fare all the time, but rarely is it fueled by the grit and determination it takes to run a literal taco truck.
Q: After years of fine dining, then transitioning into a truck setting, how did you find your voice?
A: A lot of it was cooking from memory from when I was a kid. I’ve taken flavors and inspiration from all over, you're always learning. But for me to find my own voice, I think it was just traveling and tasting different foods. Experiencing life.
Being from LA, I draw inspiration from the neighborhoods. I wouldn't call it fusion, but it’s more of a stew of different cultures and Angeleno cuisine.
Q: How do you make it all work? How do you manage in such a tight space?
A: Right now, total staff, there’s six of us, but on an average day there’s four—three in the kitchen and one in the front of house. I myself am on the truck almost every day, so I do a lot of the cooking.
There’s only one place to cook, and that’s the plancha. If I'm training someone, I like to mostly mentor. I don't want to kick them off unless they're in the weeds and drowning. It’s not tough love as much as its a gentle push. You’re in a very small place—there’s no walk-in to hide in. If you fuck up, it’s in front of everybody. You can’t be too soft or be too hard; or else no one will want to work with you. It’s the push and pull of being stern rather than the wrath of God.
Q: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned on the street the past few years?
A: Abide by the laws. When they shut down my cart, I had to hustle. They shut me down on a Wednesday and I had the truck leased by Tuesday and did service Wednesday. It was pretty insane. Also, knowing where to park, which businesses to park in front of, and being really patient.
Doing it by yourself is a really big part of it. Some of these food truck guys will buy a truck and hire a chef, but as the owner, you need to know what it takes in terms of sacrifice of time and mental health as well. I think that’s the biggest challenge: balancing your normal life and work life.
Q: What do you look forward to most about going into your brick and mortar?
A: Consistency. I wont have to shop anymore, so I wont have to deal with L.A. traffic every single fucking day. And being able to use a bigger kitchen, a bigger space. Having my own prep area so I don't have to be shoulder to shoulder with someone, you know? There’s a fryer, plancha, six burners, convection oven, and a wood-fired upright broiler and a wood-fired oven.
I’m excited. It’s the next big step. We went from the cart, to the truck, then to the second truck, and now the restaurant. I think as long as I'm there, and I'm involved, I think we’re on the right path.