Wes Avila says he couldn’t afford to work in fine dining. The LA native spent a year on the central California coast at L’Auberge Carmel, plating avocado mousse and poached lobster, before student loans sent him back to his hometown in search of a job that could pay his bills. Ultimately he found financial freedom while dodging the cops as an illegal taquero, selling beef-cheek tacos and sea-urchin-topped tostadas from a portable cart with Guerrilla Tacos graffitied beneath the flattop in lime-green spray paint. The name stuck, but the guerrilla lifestyle morphed into a legitimate taco truck with a Twitter handle and a schedule to keep. In a town crawling with loncheras, Avila’s stands apart.
You have ingredients in your tacos that a lot of people would associate with fine dining, not taco trucks.
That was kind of my thing. I wanted to make it approachable. When you hear foie gras, you’re like, Ooh, fancy, so I called it a fancy taco. I didn’t sell it as a gimmick; I did it because I wanted to serve foie gras.
If I can get good urchin from someone in Santa Barbara who catches it the day before and brings it kicking and moving, then hell yeah I’m going to serve it. A lot of people haven’t had it. My dad was like, I haven’t had it since I lived in Mexico. You don’t really see it in Mexican restaurants here, so when you do see it out of a truck and it’s at a reasonable price, people order it. I try to take away that whole mystique.
There’s this idea that tacos—really any food from a truck—are supposed to be cheap. Do you get a lot of pushback for selling $6 and $8 tacos?
We get more pushback from the truck than the cart. I had someone come one time and laugh like, Ha-ha, fucking $5 tacos? And I was like, Do you know where you’re at, fool? This is LA, I know where I’m at. He made me livid. I was like, Do you see these ingredients? And I pulled out the lobster and it was fucking moving. He ends up getting one and then ordering like five or six and then was all, Yeah, this is the best lobster I’ve ever had.
If you took those same ingredients off the tortilla and put them on a ceramic plate—
Yeah, I’ve done that demo for someone once. It was pork belly with a cherry salsa—cherries, pistachios, grilled red onion, vinegar, olive oil, habanero, and cilantro, and a two- or three-ounce piece of seared pork belly from Krys Cook at Cook Pigs Ranch. And this guy was like, Dude, this is five bucks? It’s just pork.
So I was like, Bring me a plate. They brought the plate out. I got my olive oil bottle out, made a swoosh, the whole thing, and was like, Here: it’s fucking $23. And he said, That’s a good point, man—I’ll take two.
The fine dining opportunities for a cook in Los Angeles are few and far between. Would you recommend that a young cook in LA go have that experience?
I would tell them to go have that experience at least once. Honestly, other than the temples, I find it very, very difficult to see fine dining in the future. It’s kind of cyclical—things go out of fashion and come back again. And I think right now fine dining isn’t really in fashion. The food is the shit, the food is excellent, but you see more chefs going toward places like Bestia, Gjelina, where it’s a little bit more rustic but really good quality.
What did fine dining do for you?
It opened my eyes to precision. There are places that are doing really good food, but it’s so fast and rustic that you can’t really see what the purity of ingredients can be. If you go to one of these temples—Providence or Mélisse—where they are really slowing it down and making beautiful, small, intricate food, it gives you a different perspective on things. There is obviously a lot of work that goes into it—and a lot of guys working for free—so you can see the hands that go into the food, you know what I mean? I’m really, really grateful that I did that and took that route of fine dining, because it taught me about discipline and preserving ingredients and getting the best stuff. And stamina—you’re working twelve hours, you know?
Is there anything you miss about that temple environment?
No. There’s nothing I miss about it even though it’s a beautiful thing. Certain cooks aspire for perfection, but you’ll kill yourself trying to make it, and you’ll kill yourself trying to keep it. If it’s worth it to you, follow it. But if you’re not going to be the chef at one of those places, and you actually want to make a living, there’s no way you can do it there.
My endgame isn’t Michelin stars, it’s to do really well with tacos, make something scalable, sell everything, and move to Hawaii and open a small taco shack that I can open three days a week and sell local fish tacos and have my own hours. It’s not about making tons of money and having a mansion. I still want to be able to work, but I want to do it at my pace. When I started Guerrilla Tacos, that was the beauty of it: Fuck it, let’s open today! Now we have to be on time and do this and that. But that’s what I liked about it before, so I think I’d revert to that and be financially free.