“I take influence from wherever I want,” says chef Wes Avila of LA’s Guerrilla Tacos. “I’m not blocked off or walled off by borders — if I want to use Russian or Armenian or Japanese ingredients, I’m going to use them.” Though he has fine dining experience at white tablecloth French restaurants, Avila has a refreshing, new school approach to cooking. “I don’t have an old guard kind of chef mentality. It’s more like, ‘Well, I’m in Los Angeles, I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want.’ It’s the Wild West out here.”
Avila’s Guerrilla Tacos — named for his (initially) impromptu food truck that ambushed the taco truck scene in 2012 — quickly turned into a sensation, winning raves from both customers and critics. Early next year, the chef who promises to never play by the rules will open a brick-and-mortar location, and this month he published his first cookbook, Guerrilla Tacos: Recipes from the Streets of L.A.
Filled with memories of his stoner teenage years, early days as an accidental restaurant cook, and eventual coming to terms with his own unique style of taquero cuisine, Avila’s book also offers home cooking tricks he picked up from his parents. True to form, he uses ingredients from across the globe, though he considers his food chiefly Mexican. Questions of authenticity, gentrification, and co-opting have been top of mind for chefs of Avila’s generation, and they’re topics he’s thought a lot about.
When asked whether an American chef can make Mexican food, Avila says, “No.”
“It’s an American chef making food that’s inspired by Mexico,” he says. “It’s like what happens when the Rolling Stones play the blues. Is it still the blues or is it the Rolling Stones? It’s the Rolling Stones.”
Still, Avila has a lot of wiggle room when it comes to specific dishes. His recipe for chile Colorado, for instance, is little more than a seared steak sliced and slicked with a spicy red chile sauce. “I actually didn’t even know what real chile Colorado was for a long time. I thought it was a kind of red stew. But this is how my dad used to make it.”
“Is it authentic?” he asks. “No. But it is delicious and very satisfying.” Avila doesn’t even always make it with beef. “It’s great with leftover Thanksgiving turkey, too,” he says. “And if someone says, ‘This isn’t chile Colorado,’ well, I guess I’d say, ‘Fuck you, it is for me and I don’t care what you want to call it.’”
This is my dad’s take on chile Colorado. He’d just make a simple guisado (stew) with sliced top sirloin and call it chile Colorado. It may not be what you think of as chile Colorado. You can also do this recipe with leftover turkey from Thanksgiving. I recommend you do. It’s stupid-good. Some grocers mistakenly list poblano peppers as pasilla peppers — make sure you get the dried peppers for this.
3 pounds beef, preferably in one piece (hanger steak, hanging tender, or top sirloin), trimmed and cut into 1⁄2-by-2-inch pieces (like for fajitas) or the equivalent of leftover turkey, breast chopped into pieces, and dark meat shredded by hand
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
8 Roma tomatoes, chopped
1 cup husked, rinsed, and halved tomatillos
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 dried pasilla pepper (see headnote), stemmed and seeded
2 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
1 dried chile morita, stemmed and seeded
2 bay leaves
1 cup water
16 to 18 corn tortillas, warmed
2 red onions, very thinly sliced
Season the beef with salt and pepper.
In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, warm the vegetable oil. Working in four batches, sear the beef until it is browned, about 2 minutes per batch. You don’t want it cooked too much, just coated with oil and browned. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the beef to another container.
In the same pan, over medium heat, sauté the yellow onion and cumin seeds until the onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomatillos, garlic, pasilla, dried chiles, and bay leaves and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatillos are cooked and the chiles are soft. Turn the heat to medium-low and add the water to keep it saucy. Transfer to a blender and process to make the sauce as smooth as possible.
Return the meat to the pan and cover with the sauce. Serve family-style, with the tortillas and red onions, and let everybody make their own tacos.
Reprinted with permission from Guerrilla Tacos, copyright © 2017 by Wes Avila, with Richard Parks III. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photographs copyright © 2017 by Dylan James Ho and Jeni Afuso