Eat Your Way Through Los Angeles With Angeleno Chef Wes Avila
Wes Avila, the chef behind Guerrilla Tacos and author of a new cookbook, shares his favorite neighborhoods and local haunts.
Chef Wes Avila knows a thing or two about the LA food scene. “I was born and raised here in Los Angeles,” he says, and he’s been here for much of his life. After ditching a factory job for Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, he cooked his way around area favorites like L’Auberge Carmel and Le Comptoir. “I worked in fine dining for about eight years,” he says. “And then I left. I went and started the food cart.”
The cart he’s referring to is the massively successful Guerrilla Tacos, Avila's boundary-pushing food truck that takes its innovative tacos to a different place each day of the week. The operation has won awards — including a Best Taco Truck nod from LA Weekly — and Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold described it as a “singular taqueria,” saying, “you're not going to find cooking like this anywhere else but L.A.”
Avila has channeled all that work into the new Guerrilla Tacos cookbook — a bestseller that’s part food and travel memoir, part catalogue of culinary experiments, and 100% Los Angeles. Travel stories and food cultures are woven throughout, as recipes like Taco Pasta and lomi-lomi Salmon Tostadas demonstrate the disparate influences Avila brings to his food. “For me, traveling is vastly important,” says Avila. “A lot of times, chefs get bogged down because they’re in the kitchen all the time, reading other people’s cookbooks. Tasting something somewhere else is way more influential. Once you get the bug, you don’t want to stop.”
His dishes — with cuisines, ingredients, and languages rubbing up against each other at every turn — could be taken as some sort of metaphor for the city where he cooks. “I didn’t set out to do fusion cooking, but it became that — very Angeleno. Los Angeles is in the book, and I’m glad that it came out the way it did.”
So what does LA look like now? “It’s very fluid,” says Avila. “There are a lot of pop-ups, carts, new places opening. And you’ve got a good mix of Angelenos and people who are coming to Los Angeles because they know it’s welcoming to new concepts.” Among the newcomers: a brick-and-mortar headquarters for Guerrilla Tacos, setting up shop in DTLA next year. Generally, people are starting to really appreciate the depth and breadth of cooking happening in the city. “It’s no longer just the big Mediterranean places that are getting press and feeling the love. Like the people here, it’s a melting pot. An ever-changing landscape.”
Want to get a taste of the rich, delicious tapestry that is food in Los Angeles? Here are the chef’s suggestions on what to explore.
“Right now, Filipino food is really in the spotlight,” says Avila. LA has the largest ethnically Filipino population in the US, and hot new openings like LASA and Ricebar are just a few additions we've noticed to the wide network of neighborhood Pinoy restaurants.
Avila also says that “Lebanese and Armenian food — though it doesn’t get much press, and not too many young chefs are doing anything new with it—is really good. We have the highest population of Armenians outside Armenia.” He loves the kebabs, stews, hummus, and rice dishes.
For the city’s best Latin American food, says Avila, head to the streets to find roving stands run by vendors from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and more. "These are the more traditional street carts, rather than the trendy farmer's market stands," Avila says. "For carts being illegal, and only recently decriminalized, the street food is super vibrant.” The street cart system is so important in LA that whole economies have sprung up around it: “there’s a whole district with Latinx-owned shops that sell equipment, carts, propane. You’ll see the cazuelas for carnitas and things like that.”
It’s also worth exploring the Chinese and Thai options, especially “small, family-owned restaurants where everybody pitches in.” A good place to start: the San Gabriel Valley, a longtime mecca for all sorts of Asian food, or Hollywood’s Thai Town neighborhood.
Across the city, says Avila, “ethnic food is evolving” in LA. “The majority of the street vendors are first generation immigrants, while the ones that are in farmers markets and food halls are US-born chefs that are putting their twist on it. It’s interesting to see both sides.”
“Here in Los Angeles,” says Avila, “it’s so sprawled that each neighborhood is unique.” Take Boyle Heights: “If you drive through Boyle Heights at night, you’ll honestly pass probably 30 taco stands. And Boyle Heights isn’t that big.” He says to head here for tacos and Central American street food, where the existing street economy is going strong and continuing to grow.
“Koreatown has a lot of late night food,and great drinks,” says Avila. In addition to killer Korean BBQ and naengmyeon, you’ll find a range of restaurants serving Thai, Filipino, Latin American, and more cuisines. Traditional Korean taverns, karaoke spots, and trendy cocktail bars are all in the mix.
And Glendale is increasingly a destination for Armenian food — says Avila, “right now, I’m living in Glendale and it’s been a huge influence on me. There are more Armenians in Glendale than there are in Yerevan.” The area has a sizable Lebanese population as well.
Also keep an eye on DTLA, where Avila says “the Arts District is bumpin.” His restaurant will eventually live at 7th and Mateo, “down the block from Bestia, around the corner from Silverlake Wine and Church & State.”
Some of the most exciting chefs and restaurants, says Avila, are those cooking international cuisines with California ingredients. “Chefs are taking food that they enjoyed eating throughout their life, and using better products,” he says. “We’re blessed, in California, with the best produce in the US. The Pacific is right there. Things are available year round at farmers markets. Being able to use that for your home cuisine is remarkable.”
“I really like what they’re doing at 71Above,” says Avila of this Financial District restaurant on the 71st floor of the US Bank Tower. Angelini, a modest osteria in Fairfax, is his favorite spot for Italian. “It’s old school — as L.A. as L.A. can be, and more Rome than Rome. Everybody in there speaks Italian.”
And, of course, Mexican food. For tacos, Avila is a fan of Cielito Lindo on Olvera Street — the historic, usually tourist-laden, Mexican district downtown where you can find some of the city’s best food if you know where to look. And in Boyle Heights, there’s Carnitas el Momo. “They have the best carnitas in LA, by far,” says Avila. “Their pork is fire.”
The dynamic multiethnic food scene in this city is part of a larger awakening in California’s largest city. “Along with the food,” says Avila, “the arts scene is blowing up. And those abandoned warehouse neighborhoods are slowly changing, whether we like it or not.”
“It’s different than it was,” he says. “There’s a lot going on. Everybody’s coming to LA. It’s the place to be.”
Guerrilla Tacos: Recipes from the Streets of L.A. by Wesley Avila with Richard Parks III
To buy: amazon.com, $18.