When Wes Avila was interviewing for a job at Le Comptoir, Gary Menes’ temple of vegetable cookery, Menes asked him what his ultimate career goal was.
“To be the best taquero in Los Angeles,” Avila replied.
And while it’s impossible to say who is the best taco cook in this city of splendid taco cooks, only a few years after working for Menes, the 35-year-old Pico Rivera native is just about guaranteed to be on any knowledgeable shortlist.
His Guerrilla Tacos truck, now three years old, serves compelling dishes that are equal in complexity to those at many fine-dining restaurants, even though they’re served on warm tortillas and eaten standing up.
In Guerrilla’s first year, Avila’s taco made with roasted squash, Oaxacan cheese, a hint of chilli and smoky charred tomato made Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold’s list of best dishes of 2013.
Cooking with Avila at the Glendale condo he shares with wife, Tanya Mueller, a professor at East Los Angeles College, and their French bulldog mix, Pono Dog, that blend of French technique and Eastside soul is obvious.
To make the leek garnish for his sweet potato tacos, he first sears the leeks in butter, then poaches them until tender in a broth made with browned carrots and whole garlic cloves, fresh thyme and parsley and a bottle of wine. Then he pats them dry and sears them in butter again. And that’s just one element of the dish.
A few ribbons of those leeks go on a corn tortilla (he swears by La Princesita brand), with browned slices of creamy Oaxacan or panela cheese, a slice of roasted Japanese sweet potato that’s been fried in butter, a salsa made with almonds, pine nuts, chiles de arbol and tomatillos (the small ones, called milpero, have the best flavour, he says), crumbled feta and green onions.
The result is rich, mouth-filling flavour, at once creamy, salty, sweet and spicy, with an equally wide range of textures. It’s stupendous. And once the various elements have been prepped, all it takes is a couple of minutes and a griddle to finish. You could serve it as a taco, but it’s pretty enough to make a plated appetiser.
That’s the kind of attention to detail he learned working under chefs such as Menes.
A 2005 graduate of Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Pasadena, Avila started out on the typical big-deal restaurant track, including staging in France with Alain Ducasse. But he didn’t find it satisfying.
“I found myself getting drawn deeper and deeper into fine dining,” he says. “You know how intense that is: It’s like working at a temple. I was counting the number of peanuts that went onto a dish.
“It was a really good learning experience, but that wasn’t the direction I wanted to go with my cooking.”
So Avila started Guerrilla Tacos on a card table set up outside Handsome Roasters in downtown L.A. When that got shut down (he had no permits), he jumped on the first taco truck he could find.
A brick-and-mortar restaurant is still his dream, he says.
“I’ve always got people talking to me. They’ll say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a really good spot you have to go into.’ And then they ask if I have $200,000 to move in. No, but thank you for asking.”
Until then, Avila says, he’ll stick with selling tacos out of his truck.
“First, it’s my favourite food to eat. Plus, I love to interact with people, get face-to-face with my customers. I get to see what they like and what they don’t like. And believe me, they’ll tell you, whichever way.”
Avila’s taco goals: crunch, balance, layers
What does it take to make a great taco? Avila says it comes down to crunch and balance.
“They have to have a mix of textures,” he says. “I don’t like one-dimensional. You want crunch meets soft. In my farmers market quesadillas, there are sauteed vegetables, Oaxacan cheese, then something fried for extra crunch, and raw arugula.
“It’s about layers of textures. Beef tendon is very gelatinous — I make a beef tendon taco by putting the braised tendon in a shell and then deep-frying it. You get crunch and you get smooth. It keeps the palate interested.”
The same goes for flavour.
“You want layers of flavour too,” Avila says. “If you’re doing something braised, you want something sharp, like pickled onions or radishes or marinated cabbage.” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Services
SWEET POTATO TACOS WITH LEEKS AND ALMOND SALSA
1 red bell pepper
1 tbsp oil
30g chiles de arbol, stems removed but left whole
½ to 1 habanero pepper, split lengthwise
2 tbsp pine nuts
3 tbsp sliced almonds
450g small tomatillos, rinsed and peeled
2 plum tomatoes, quartered lengthwise
1 cup water
2 to 2½ tbsp red wine vinegar
Char the bell pepper over a burner or under a broiler until it is well-blackened on all sides. Wrap in a plastic bag and set aside until cool enough to handle, then peel and seed the pepper. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the chiles de arbol and habanero and toast until fragrant, about 3 minutes; toward the end of toasting, add the pine nuts and almonds and toast until fragrant.
Add the tomatillos, tomatoes, water and three-fourths teaspoon salt, and cook over high heat until the tomatillos are tender, about 5 minutes.
Puree in a blender until smooth, add the red wine vinegar and adjust seasoning. The salsa should be thick enough to generously coat the back of a spoon. This makes about one litre of salsa. It will keep, covered tightly, in the refrigerator for a week.
Recipe adapted from Wes Avila, chef at Guerrilla Tacos.