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

Nov 2, 2017
Originally published on November 2, 2017 11:08 am

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.

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.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A popular food truck here in Los Angeles has been building this small empire one gourmet taco at a time. Guerrilla Tacos is once again on food critic Jonathan Gold's influential list of favorite LA eateries. Here's NPR's Mandalit del Barco.

MANDLIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: How many taco trucks do you know that not only have a cookbook but a theme song?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Baby, wanna eat those tacos.

DEL BARCO: Robert Avila, also known as DJ Robyoheart, produced this in honor of his uncle, Wes Avila, who created Guerrilla Tacos. Five years ago, Wes Avila was working as a sous chef at a pop-up restaurant 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.

WES AVILA: We were kind of bending the law not, not necessarily breaking the law. We had to move around so we wouldn't get caught, you know, like guerilla warfare. That's why we had that name 'cause we would be in, like, random alleys, random streets being kind of renegade like that.

DEL BARCO: 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 and back came the same cops who busted him.

AVILA: Saw that we were in a food truck, saw that we had all our stuff, and I was like, would you like some food? They're like, yeah. They were very welcoming after that.

DEL BARCO: This is not your tia's taco truck.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Can I get two wild boar tacos?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Two boar.

DEL BARCO: 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.

AVILA: You know, I like to use ingredients that keep us interested in what we're doing.

DEL BARCO: Avila's specialty, sweet potato tacos, are the No. 1 request. He uses bite-sized roasted Japanese sweet potatoes coated with butter and a homemade salsa of almond chile with scallions and tomatillos topped with salty Oaxacan cheese and crunchy corn nuts served on corn tortillas. Avila uses fresh, local, gourmet ingredients inspired by his Mexican-American family's home cooking.

AVILA: And I was always, like, the fat kid that loved to eat.

DEL BARCO: Growing up in Pico Rivera, east of LA, he savored his Tia Melinda's tacos, his dad's refried beans, eggs queso fresco and avocado tacos and his mom's huge Sunday morning breakfast.

AVILA: She put a scoop of lard and then put, like, a pack of bacon, a pack of sausages, five or six pieces of bologna and Spam, so it'd be like this big thing of cooking breakfast - preserved meats, eggs however you want them with, like, Wonder Bread.

DEL BARCO: When he was 15, Avila's mom died after years of suffering from chronic bronchitis from the factory job where she worked. After that, his dad took over the cooking. In high school, Avila played football and with his brother he also began deejaying at east LA house parties.

AVILA: Deep house and hip-hop is what I spun. We'd do quinceaneras, weddings, house parties. I mean, at the time, though, too, the thing that was so, like, normal was a lot of violence was going down at those things. Like, kids would go there to have fun. Then - I'll never forget - it was always - like, the cholos would come and be, like, wanting to crash parties and not pay and started getting in fights. And then there'd be shootings. We were like 15, 16 years old. It's like, oh, we would scatter and, like, once, like, the adrenaline was gone, we would go, oh, where's the next party at?

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

AVILA: And I worked as a teamster, forklift driver, machine packer. 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.

DEL BARCO: Avila did this for seven years before going to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu. Then he 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; in his case, leaving upscale restaurants to serve street food.

JONATHAN GOLD: Guerrilla Tacos is the emblematic restaurant of what's going on in Los Angeles right now.

DEL BARCO: LA Times Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold has been a Guerilla Tacos fan ever since its food cart days when he'd stop by to eat and talk with Avila about the Dodgers.

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

DEL BARCO: Early next year, Guerrilla Tacos comes full circle from being a food cart to a food truck to an actual brick-and-mortar restaurant in downtown LA's arts district. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.