It's around 5 o'clock on a Wednesday evening outside Handsome Coffee Roasters, the hip coffee shop that has become a hub of culture and activity in the burgeoning Arts District east of downtown. Chef Wes Avila has just finished setting up his stand: Guerrilla Tacos. It's a small pop-up tent adorned with light bulbs, a row of colorful condiments like habanero salsa and pickled red onions on a folding table, and a small flat-top stove where he griddles tortillas and sautées things like stewed short rib or mushrooms with Oaxacan cheese.
A half-hour in and the line has already started to grow: People stop by for a taco before or after sipping a latté inside, or simply roll by off the street and pick up a few tacos and a Mexican Coke to go.
The prep for Wednesday taco service is the most difficult, Avila admits, and for good reason. On Monday and Tuesday nights, Avila is the sous chef at the pop-up Le Comptoir (currently stationed at Mignon Wine Bar), working alongside his longtime friend, chef Gary Menes (Marche, Palate). As soon as dinner service on Tuesday night is over, Avila jumps to work making things like homemade chorizo, stuffed poblano peppers or chicken pipian.
It's a labor of love, though: After seven years of working at places like Church & State and Palate Food + Wine, Avila found zen by purchasing a small taco rig this past July and, as Michael MacDonald once advocated, taking to the streets. "I knew as long as I'd been cooking I had always wanted to do something like this," admits Avila, a born-and-raised Angeleno. "Once I had the extra time, I decided to just take the opportunity, and honestly, I don't think I've ever been so happy as when I'm working here."
That night, Avila was especially excited for a salsa made from little purple tomatillos, or milperos, a find picked up from a nearby farmers market. As you might expect from a guy who cooks at one of the most produce-intensive kitchens in the city, Avila takes a great deal of pride in channeling his exposure to top-notch local ingredients into the recipes he grew up eating.
The menu, a short list of three or four tacos, changes every time, whether it's his weekly appearances on Wednesday evenings and Friday mornings at Handsome Coffee or Saturday mornings at the Café Dulce pop-up downtown (apparently, good tacos and good coffee go well together). This night featured camarones al diablo, a fiery stir-fry of shrimp in a blazing hot ancho chile sauce; long-stewed pork leg swimming in chile verde; and rich, gooey beef cheeks, melted down and topped with a buttery avocado sauce and strips of pickled red onion.
But the greatest creation, unsurprisingly, was a simple vegetable taco, which Avila dubbed the "poncho potato": a spatula full of rosemary-scented home fries, topped with shredded sharp cheddar, some diced heirloom tomatoes and a faint dab of habanero salsa. "It's kind of like something you would make for breakfast at home with a bunch of leftovers," Avila says.
It turns out that it also pairs nicely with the fruity, slightly sour shot of espresso you can get inside.
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