Let’s just get this out of the way: Los Angeles is taco Mecca.
From the classic carne asada and al pastor to multicultural bulgogi and tocino, from single-bite samplers to massive half-pound boats of meat, Los Angeles has it all. There’s crispy and soft-shell, deep-fried and lettuce-based, wagyu and vegan varieties. Want to sit down for a meal of “gourmet” tacos? There are plenty of options for you. Of course, if it’s 2am and you’re looking to sober up in Boyle Heights, you’ll be more than likely to find three or four trucks within stumbling distance.
Los Angeles tacos may span the entire spectrum from authentic to fusion to downright strange, but they’re doubtlessly a staple of our culture. Whether you live in a vaulted-ceiling mansion in Beverly Hills or in a single-person tent on Skid Row, chances are you’ve lined up for this street food more than a few times or debated the best spot for lengua in the city. Four taco eateries made Jonathan Gold’s 2013 compilation of “101 Best Restaurants,” and a newcomer is poised to grab a spot in this year’s version.
That would be Guerrilla Tacos, the passion project of Wes Avila, whose laudable career has taken him through such venerated restaurants as Le Comptoir and Church & State. His street tacos aren’t exactly a recent venture – they’ve popped up from time to time as two-man stands as early as 2012 – but it’s only been within the last few months that his new truck and set schedule have garnered him the public following he deserves. These aren’t your average sidewalk food offerings, and they raise even the stew-based tacos at Guisados in terms of creativity.
The tacos, which are limited to three or four varieties a day, are dependent upon local farmer’s market offerings. Spring saw the Castroville artichoke roasted and topped with a lemon aioli and almond-based “chili.” October brought with it a fresh pumpkin quesadilla, with the pulp mashed to the consistency of refried beans and sandwiched with Oaxacan cheese and scallions. You might find a juicy portobello cap sliced and nestled atop a perfectly-fried egg, which serves both as a buttery bomb of flavor and a vehicle for the taco’s contents.
But don’t think that the creativity is limited to vegetarian selections. Meats may include grilled chicken topped with a nutty sesame ajonjoli, a Spanish chorizo-and-octopus combination, and lamb kidney for those with more adventurous palates. There’s plenty of fresh fish, too: hamachi, swordfish belly, clams, and scallops galore. And if you’re lucky you’ll find Avila shucking fresh Santa Barbara sea urchin for your tostada. The only way Guerrilla Tacos could get more gourmet would be with caviar (but I wouldn’t put it past them to try it).
And while the main ingredients – the featured proteins or starring vegetables – may pique interest and garner public attention, it’s really the supporting flavors that make these tacos shine. Most street eaters won’t care that the tomato in their salsa is smoked or that their onions have been brined. Minced mushrooms may only be noticed through taco surgery, and yet it’s these little details that take these tacos to another level. They demonstrate a deep consideration that only a master chef would have. The complex, rounded flavor profiles at Guerrilla probe the question: if this is what Avila can do with tacos, what would he be capable of running his own kitchen?
Hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to find out.