Wes Avila grew up in Pico Rivera, attended the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena and worked for leading chefs like Walter Manzke and Gary Menes before launching Guerrilla Tacos, a truck that parks outside specialty coffeehouses and is destined for a fixed brick and mortar location. On May 23, I met Avila outside Blacktop Coffee, where he shared insights.
Josh Lurie: Was it a given that you would become a chef, or did you consider other careers?
Wes Avila: Honestly, I just kind of took the easy route after high school. I went and worked with my dad at a corrugator factory where we would make boxes for vegetables we would use. I became a Teamster and was a Teamster for about six or seven years. During that time, I was kind of getting in a funk, because it was very repetitive. When I met Tanya (Mueller) and found out she was doing her doctorate, she seemed so normal to me, and I’d never met anybody who was that educated. I was like, “If she can be a doctor, I can be a chef,” so I quit my job and went to culinary school immediately and haven’t looked back since.
JL: L’Auberge Carmel in Carmel-By-The-Sea was your very first restaurant?
WA: That was my very first serious restaurant. During culinary school, I did work at random little spaces, but I wouldn’t consider those of any importance. Just to get my feet wet. That was where I moved and committed and just lived and breathed food 24/7.
JL: What do you remember about your very first night working with Walter Manzke?
WA: I don’t know if this is for me. It was very difficult getting the hang of things. I was so worried about fucking up. I was very, very observant. Like, the number of times Walter would shave truffle, or how many peanuts we would put in the trays for guests when they would arrive at the hotel. Details like that were just meticulous. I was always on eggshells for the first three months, and once I got the hang of things, it was still that important, but I wasn’t as anxious anymore.
JL: When did you start to get comfortable? Was there a moment of turning point?
WA: The turning point was probably New Year’s Eve. I had been there since July, and it was six months later. We had a really great service on New Year’s. I hung out with the Sous Chef, Tim Mosblech, and we just drank and talked for hours. I told him, “I thought you hated me.” He said, “No, dude. I just needed to make sure you were on the up and up…We’ve had a lot of people come through who were flaky, or you can’t trust them. I can trust you.” That’s where I was like, “Alright, I’m part of the team.” It was much more positive moving forward.
JL: What was the very first dish you remember cooking in your life?
WA: It was probably a fried egg in lard. My mom always used to use lard. When she was alive, when we were young, I always remember having that smell of lard. As we got older, people didn’t use that anymore, but I remember being probably about 11 putting the lard – manteca – and hearing the crisp and frying the egg and basting it. It was an egg deep-fried in lard, with Wonder bread.
JL: What does a dish have to be for you to serve it at Guerrilla Tacos?
It has to be great. I wouldn’t serve anything that I wouldn’t want to eat. For me, that’s most important, whether it’s a vegetable or meat. Or whether it’s a farmer I get it from. If I wouldn’t eat it, I wouldn’t serve it. That’s why whenever anybody asks what to order, “Everything.” Everything we have is good. It’s like trying to pick a favorite child. I’m always pretty confident about the stuff we serve.
JL: What’s the most recent dish you developed, and what was your inspiration?
WA: Today, we did the fried fish taco, which is just so classic and Mexican. We’d never done that before, so let’s do it, and let’s do it right. I got cod from [Toshihide] Kawai over at IMP [International Marine Products]. We used Modelo in the beer batter, fried it in lard with cabbage and chile Japonais. We burnt [the chiles], so they’re crispy and crunchy, just like in Ensenada. We kept it very, very traditional. The inspiration was the weather. Summer’s coming and I’ve never made those before. “I think I can make them pretty good,” so we made them and they tasted really good.
Yesterday, we had soujouk with a fried egg. The soujouk literally came from a dinner Tanya had over at Carousel in Glendale. As part of Hafleh Beiruti, they send all these courses out, but I remember this one in particular. It’s sausage they char with anise. They burn it tableside. I thought this sausage would be fantastic with eggs. It’s very much like blood sausage you would have in England for breakfast. I used blood sausage with egg, added arbol chile and a lot of herbs, whole parsley leaves and rough-cut scallions. It turned out pretty good.
JL: Do you get inspired a lot by living in Glendale?
WA: I do. A lot of the cheeses I can’t get from my distributor, I get from little local markets. They’ll have four or five different Fetas, four or five different fresh farm cheeses, stuff that is in a different language. I’ll have to ask the people working the deli. They’ll see me all the time, because I’m always in there. They’re like, “Try this. It’s the best.” I’ll get different cheeses like that. It might say Feta, but I know it’s Danish Feta, Bulgarian Feta or Russian Feta. They’re all different. Soft, firm. It’s really interesting to be living in Glendale and be able to incorporate those things.
JL: You’re clearly best known for tacos. What are the keys to a great taco?