In the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, Friday afternoons feel like unofficial holidays. By midday, crowds start to grow outside of restaurants, sidewalk tables multiply and groups of friends settle in for comida, the biggest meal of the day. Heading back to the office usually is shrugged off for a third bottle of wine.
On Friday of last week there was an even bigger crowd than usual collecting outside Conchita Cocina, where Wes Avila, owner and chef of Guerrilla Tacos, was preparing to serve his Angeleno, new-breed tacos to the city that created the original template.
“This is the taco capital of the world,” Avila said, “So I have that feeling in my stomach that I used to get when I played sports, not scared, but there’s a rumble before the kickoff.” Avila was right to feel a bit anxious. It was his first time in Mexico City, and he planned to serve cauliflower and olive tacos to residents who hold firm opinions about their city’s emblematic dish. The volcanic debates that emerge in the United States over what’s best in regional barbecue or pizza do not reach the feverish pitch that they do in a city of 600 square miles, with literally thousands of excellent taco operations, at times both commonplace and extraordinary. When you have not just Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees but a hundred other superlatives on your team, there’s a quiet confidence in a stacked deck.
The taco has been constantly evolving since it became a popular food in Mexico City in the late 19th century, and the uncountable diversity of varieties, styles and fillings speaks to the creative ingenuity of local cooks. However, upscale tacos are relatively recent. The tortilla-as-template model has been at play for a number of years at the high end, perhaps most famously at Pujol, where you could jerk the tortilla out from under its filling leaving all of the components behind to make a magical and singular dish. At Guerrilla Tacos, Avila follows a similar course, with fine-dining technique and prime ingredients that use a hot corn tortilla as dais; the main difference is that they come at four bucks a pop out of a truck airbrushed with skulls in Dodger caps.
While the spectrum of contemporary Mexican cooking in Mexico City has been pushing boundaries at the high end, Los Angeles has permitted a certain kind of freedom that has carved out spaces for other models. It is, of course, the city where kimchi tacos carry as much authenticity as textbook carnitas; where there are more resident immigrant communities to draw from and deeper cross-cultural borrowing; and more midrange places like Broken Spanish, Petty Cash and Galaxy Taco. For all of its modern cosmopolitanism, Mexico City is a bit stiff.
Avila found a like mind in Diego Hernandez, the chef of Conchita (and also, Corazon de Tierra in Baja California), who ate from Avila’s truck a couple of years back; the two chefs rubbed shoulders later at Tacolandia, L.A. Weekly's Bill Esparza-curated taco festival. Conchita has the kind of clever, careful design that’s found in many of Mexico City’s new restaurants and feeds a creative class of architects, designers, musicians and entrepreneurs. Hernandez’s cuisine at Conchita is pure Ensenada-style cooking: a raw bar with pristine seafood flown in from the coast; splashes of lime, olive oil and salt; superb produce. It sits on the main promenade of La Roma, Alvaro Obregon, where godines, or working stiffs, coast on red bike-share Ecobicis and you can hear English wafting through the streets.
As the pop-up started, the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling doors were folded open onto the street and watermelon mezcal cocktails were on almost every table. Women in heels click-clacked their way to the host’s podium beneath a draping banner of spray-painted graffiti reading #conchitatacotakeover.
Avila’s style flowed through the menu, a jumble of textures and narcotizing drops of chili. There was a taco of roasted sweet potato, his wheelhouse tuber, smeared onto a blue corn tortilla with almond salsa and a sprinkling of furikake, which added salt and depth. A tostada of raw clams, miso and uni. A meaty slab of amberjack on smoky potato puree, tart green salsa and a fistful of chives, which tasted like some kind of warm, Mexican whitefish salad. Around the room, chilangos were gabbing with friends and eating slowly. They ordered tacos of pork belly and octopus, fried half-moon tacos of crumbled potato, pausing after a bite or two to give their tablemates a wide-eyed nod that signified deep satisfaction.
Looking out of the kitchen to read the reactions, “This is like going to play at Yankee Stadium, “ Avila smirked. “No pressure at all.”