Before Guerrilla Tacos was a taco truck generating rave reviews from Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold and a cookbook landing on best-of lists including Plate magazine’s “Best fall and winter cookbooks for chefs,” it was an outlaw food cart. Chef and founder Wesley Avila got shut down several times for illegal food vending by Los Angeles County police before scaling up to a full-fledged food truck. Avila’s eclectic menu that blends traditional Mexican elements with ingredients and influences from a wide range of cuisines has proven so popular that the brand will expand to a brick-and-mortar store in downtown LA’s arts district in early 2018, NPR reported.
Guerrilla Tacos’ unique menu is inspired by Avila’s childhood memories of Mexican-American home cooking, his culinary training and work under fine dining chefs, as well as his life in LA and his travels around the world. SmartBrief spoke with Avila and co-author Richard Parks III on how the chef’s life is reflected in his food and how the book came together.
Can you talk a little bit about how you went from a guerrilla food truck in LA to the brand you are today and launching this book?
Avila: I think it’s been a work in progress. We started with the cart and went to the truck…and even on the cart we’ve always been about branding and letting people know that we were into graffiti art and street art and things like that. Painting the food cart and things like that was very much a part of us, and you know it just kind of evolved with that and the logo that was influenced by the LA County feel. Branding has always been really important, along with really good food.
The Guerrilla Tacos menu blends high and low cooking styles and uses Mexican tacos for a vehicle for flavors from all types of cuisine. What inspired that eclectic approach?
Avila: For myself, it was a lot of traveling. I went to Spain about five different times, I went to Mexico a bunch of times. Just from that, when I first started Guerrilla Tacos my ideas to do food was all about doing things that I enjoy eating, doing things from memory that I enjoyed seeing people cook and using ingredients that I really like to use. We enjoy using a lot of seafood here in California and that’s really the biggest influence on my food.
In the beginning of the book you write, “This isn’t a taco book, this is a Guerrilla Tacos book. Can you talk about what makes a Guerrilla Taco?
Avila: What makes a Guerrilla Taco is that I don’t really abide by other people’s kind of expectations. I really use what I want to use as far as ingredients go. I never stopped putting something in a taco where I thought twice, like “that doesn’t really go in a taco.” Sometimes flavors don’t work, and the tacos don’t sell. So it’s been four and a half years of experimenting and being small enough and being fluid enough to kind of evolve as tastes have evolved. I don’t like to get bogged down with recipes and keeping things exactly the same. Once we start a taco I like to keep it the same for however long we have that taco, but sometimes I like to change it up and slowly evolve it over time.
How do you draw on your experience with and memories of the Mexican-American cuisine you grew up eating to inspire your more traditional tacos?
Avila: It’s the most basic kind of thing, when you go and eat somewhere and you take something that you really enjoyed when you were a kid or that reminds you of certain times in your life that’s super important. None of these recipes were ever written down. My mom was never like “here is my old Mexican recipe of this chile dish.” It was never written down so everything was by memory, by smell, by observing. I didn’t plan on cooking when I was young, so [for these recipes] I would ask my dad, ask my aunt. That’s how those recipes came about.
What inspired you to expand the brand by releasing the cookbook, and how was that process for you?
Avila: I was approached by Nicole Tourtelot, who is now my book agent, about possibly doing one and I was like “yeah, absolutely, I’m interested in doing one.” So I met Richard as part of the interview process as a recommendation from one of the publishers and [we] just clicked. I just jumped at it, I was like “absolutely I want to do a book.” Better now than when I have a restaurant and don’t have time to do it, you know?
Richard, can you talk about your role in creating the book?
Parks: I feel so weird about this because I don’t feel like I did anything. I just wrote stuff down, it’s not like I came up with the recipes — actually I changed one salsa recipe. Wes’ most famous taco is this sweet potato taco and it has this really unique salsa, and when you get it on the truck it is this super vibrant color. Almost an orange Starburst color — super bright, it just pops. And I was just obsessed with this recipe because I could never get the color right, so I kind of adjusted some things without telling him at the very last moment when we were in the final edits, and then confessed it to him after we sent it off.
Mostly I just got together with Wes every week and tried to get his recipes down and help him decide which of all the hundreds and hundreds of dishes he prepared every day for the past three to four previous years were going to make it into the book to represent Guerrilla Tacos. In the course of that we became friends and I heard a lot about his life and growing up. I guess the role that I played was getting Wes to include more of his personal story in the book, because I realized in talking through all these dishes that he’s made that his life and his food are completely intertwined in a really natural, emotionally affective way. From his family to everything that he’s been through career-wise to his travels and personal relationships, it’s all reflected in the food.
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