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Opening a Tokyo Taqueria and Tiki Bar Dreams: Guerrilla Tacos’ Wes Avila Isn’t Done Changing the Taco Game Yet

Los Angeles, California – April 23: Wes Avila, Chef/Owner of Guerilla Tacos in Downtown Los Angeles on April 23, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer)

THE FOLLOWING STORY IS PRODUCED IN COLLABORATION WITH DOORDASH

During this difficult time for restaurants, DoorDash and L.A. TACO are teaming up to profile some of the most fascinating people behind the restaurants, trucks, and stands that make up Taco Madness. We want to be there for L.A. restaurants who are still #OpenForDelivery and hope you will join us in supporting one another in the weeks ahead. For now, enjoy this profile of the force behind Guerrilla Tacos.

[dropcap size=big]M[/dropcap]any L.A. taqueros claim to serve the city’s best tacos. Wes Avila, the owner of Guerrilla Tacos, is one of the few that can back it up.

Raised in Pico Rivera, the forklift-driving teamster-turned fine-dining chef hit downtown in 2012 with a simple griddle in tow. Setting up outside of Handsome Coffee Roasters in the Arts District, he began composing tacos with the same dedication to ingredients one typically expects from a kaiseki specialist.

At first, there were friends, family, and a few new customers swinging by for a taste, post-cappuccino. Within the month, workers from neighboring warehouses began walking over to check out his budding operation.

“It was, ‘Ey, what you got, ese?’” Avila recounts. “And I’d be like, ‘Come try this shit.’ That’s when I started feeling more connected to L.A.”

Los Angeles, California - April 23: Tacos at Guerilla Tacos in Downtown Los Angeles on April 23, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer)
Los Angeles, California - April 23: Tacos at Guerilla Tacos in Downtown Los Angeles on April 23, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer)

It wasn’t long before local media outlets caught on and spread the word about the pop-up chef making tacos with beef cheeks, duck-fat-braised pork belly, artichokes, and oxtails. With his momentum gaining speed, Avila saved enough funds to transfer his curbside taqueria into a food truck to convey his tacos to a wider L.A. audience.

In 2014, he landed an honor that the one-time Alain Ducasse apprentice still holds in the highest regard of any he’s ever received: becoming the first food truck to be officially reviewed by The LA Times, a commendation bestowed by the late, iconic L.A. food writer Jonathan Gold. The rave review introduced Avila’s cooking to vast new throngs of diners. 

“That’s probably the one that’s meant the most,” Avila, the 2015 winner of L.A. Taco’s own Taco Madness tournament, says. “The other ones are cool, of course. Michelin is cool, getting that recognition’s great, but that specific review has probably been the most important one.”

Los Angeles, California - April 23: Wes Avila, Chef/Owner of Guerilla Tacos in Downtown Los Angeles on April 23, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer)
Los Angeles, California - April 23: Wes Avila, Chef/Owner of Guerilla Tacos in Downtown Los Angeles on April 23, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer)

Guerrilla Tacos thrives on its dedication to super seasonal ingredients and painstaking recipes enfolded into remarkable tortillas, purposely sourced from a tortilleria that uses only organic corn just a couple of miles away in Boyle Heights. The menu is always changing and rewards diners who trust Avila. 

One recent special that caught a cult following was simply listed on the menu as “Cabeza" with no further description. This was not the traditional braised beef head that you would find at your standard taquería, however; it was a juicy, whole-roasted kampachi fish head. 

Guerrilla Tacos is now the type of sit-down taquería where you can have a nice date night or throwback some cold ones with friends on a weeknight.

Another night's menu may see wild boar, slow-smoked cauliflower basted with mushroom au jus, spinach-and-eggplant curry, and pork terrine at the center of his cherished tacos.

But it is more than simply fresh produce, daily catches, and pristine meats at play. It is the man himself and the powerful work ethic he brings to the kitchen.

While a number of successful taqueros are happy to clone themselves across the city based on a small menu given approval by our culinary cognoscenti, Avila maintains a strict dedication to evolving his food, persistently pushing himself to outshine his own high standards.

“Complacency eventually bores me,” he says. “Making it too easy is just not me. I always seek out new challenges, new flavors, and experiences.”

In 2018, Avila debuted the sit-down version of Guerrilla in L.A.’s Arts District, housed in a corner space that grabs your eye whether you’re driving east or west on 7th Street. A silhouette of Jonathan Gold's profile is stenciled on the best booth in the house, since he never made it to see Avila go from a truck to his own pristine Arts District brick-and-mortar operation, complete with a full cocktail menu.

Los Angeles, California - April 23: Wes Avila, Chef/Owner of Guerilla Tacos in Downtown Los Angeles on April 23, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer)
Los Angeles, California - April 23: Wes Avila, Chef/Owner of Guerilla Tacos in Downtown Los Angeles on April 23, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer)

Guerrilla Tacos is now the type of sit-down taquería where you can have a nice date night or throw back some cold ones with friends on a weeknight. The composed menu is filled with creative tacos, tostadas, snacks, and drinks, along with a changing omakase experience highlighting the chef’s mode of constant creation.

Avila’s drive is evident when discussing this initial push to translate Guerrilla into a restaurant.

“When we first opened, things really went downhill to be completely honest,” the chef admits to L.A. Taco. “It was a completely different operation. It wasn’t a truck, it wasn’t a cart. It was a restaurant. So it didn’t go so well for about six months. Then it got better, continued to get much better, and now, it’s a lot better than it was a year ago. Keeping and training staff and having people believe in it, that’s been one of the key things.”

The chef may be his own toughest critic, as Guerrilla remains one of the city’s most admired and popular places to have genre-busting Mexican food like his butternut squash taco with halloumi cheese and candied pecans, or the al pastor taco with za’atar, salsa macha, and hominy.

He can’t reveal his partners or the name just yet but says the new concept is “basically taking my food to Japan,” a country whose culinary obsessions are often perfected to the point of outdoing their countries of origin, but has yet to be celebrated for authentic Mexican flavors.

For a chef who doesn’t like to rest on past accomplishments, Avila naturally has plans and aspirations for the future.

First up is a concept Avila is cooking up for Japan, a country he has long been inspired by and now hopes to enlighten himself.

He can’t reveal his partners or the name just yet but says the new concept is “basically taking my food to Japan,” a country whose culinary obsessions are often perfected to the point of outdoing their countries of origin, but has yet to be celebrated for authentic Mexican flavors.

“I’m super excited about that,” he tells us. “We’re going to be grinding our own corn to make the tortillas and also make our own flour tortillas. Those are things that I’ve had to adjust to because we’ve never made our own tortillas at Guerrilla Tacos. I’m looking forward to that.”

For these tortillas, Avila is importing corn directly from Mexico, as well as a molino to break it down. He was also trained in making flour tortillas by his buddy, Alberto Bañuelos, of Burritos Las Palmas.

“He gave me the golden ticket,” Avila says. “And I told him, ‘I’ll never do these tortillas in the U.S., I’ll just do them in Japan.’”

Los Angeles, California - April 23: Wes Avila, Chef/Owner of Guerilla Tacos in Downtown Los Angeles on April 23, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer)
Los Angeles, California - April 23: Wes Avila, Chef/Owner of Guerilla Tacos in Downtown Los Angeles on April 23, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer)

The heavily inked chef also dreams about opening a more intimate concept that would find him cooking directly across from a small handful of customers.

“It’d be a 20-seater,” he says. “Where I can cook directly in front of somebody, maybe have those Peruvian anticucho pans, skewers, small bites like that, and have batched cocktails and really good mezcal. More of a place where it’s fun. Where the cooks get pushed but we’re only open four days, so they get three off. That would be a dream shop.”

“Comfort food is what I’m feeling right now during this whole crisis. The things that are really important to me that I haven’t done in a long time are more like nana cooking, grandmother cooking.”

The chef is also a tiki-devotee. When asked if he dreams about what his own hypothetical tiki bar might look like, he becomes animated.

“Oh fuck yeah, I’d love to open up a tiki bar,” Avila says. “A dope-ass tiki bar with kitschy-ass pu pu platters and coconut shrimp, like Giovanni’s truck-style shrimp [in Hawaii], and chocolate huapia hand pies. Having a jukebox with ‘45s of obscure exotica, you know, something pretty kitschy. I’d like it to feel like an escape, with a lot of fake shrubbery and light shows and stuff kind of like Trader Sam’s has, where you buy a certain drink and all this shit happens. That’s definitely been in the back of my head. That would be sick.”

The chef even has a blueprint for his dream retirement project: a traditional, well-appointed Middle Eastern hammam that he predicts would “crush it” in Palm Springs.

A more realistic glimpse of what L.A. could expect from the chef’s near future might stem from his current social distancing practice. He’s been exploring dishes he grew up on while cooking at home and relishing the results.

“I see my food going a little bit backward,” he says. “Comfort food is what I’m feeling right now during this whole crisis. The things that are really important to me that I haven’t done in a long time are more like nana cooking, grandmother cooking. I’m making menudo, and chile verde with chicharrón and it’s fucking bomb, bro. Just stripping away some of these new ingredients and towards a little more of, I guess, what my home cooking was like.”

Los Angeles, California - April 23: Tacos at Guerilla Tacos in Downtown Los Angeles on April 23, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer)
Los Angeles, California - April 23: Tacos at Guerilla Tacos in Downtown Los Angeles on April 23, 2020. (Brian Feinzimer)

Be it tacos, tiki, Peruvian Nikkei omakase, or his homemade menudo, the chef’s expansive knowledge and range of interests will make whatever he intends to feed us in the future eagerly anticipated by the many Angelenos who admire him.

We certainly look forward to whatever comes next from this talented local who speaks eloquently for L.A. through each and every taco he creates.

You can order Guerrilla Tacos right now using the official partner of Taco Madness, DoorDash. Currently, DoorDash and L.A. TACO are profiling some of the most fascinating people behind the restaurants, trucks, and stands that make up Taco Madness.

DoorDash is committed to doing everything it can to support its restaurant partners during this time. You can also support local restaurants like Guerrilla Tacos by ordering your meals from them online and spreading the word that many restaurants are still #OpenForDelivery.

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