Love Letters to My City

Why LA Chef Wes Avila Misses Dodgers Games and Gus’s Fried Chicken

A love letter to the City of Angels from the award-winning chef and his reflections on how quarantine has reshaped his connection to his community.

Wes Avila
Illustration: Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist
Wes Avila is the chef and owner of Guerilla Tacos in Los Angeles and author of the book, Guerilla Tacos: Recipes from the Streets of Los Angeles. As told to Helen Hollyman.

The thing I love the most about Los Angeles is the weather. It makes people come outside. It’s the starting point of the day. It can cheer you up or bring you down. Ninety percent of the time, it’s sunny in California. I’m pretty good given the circumstances. I’m not going into Guerilla Tacos at the moment, but when the COVID-19 pandemic first came to our city, it was frightening to say the least. Leading up to the actual shutdown, I had a lot on my mind because I’m working on a project in Japan. I hit a breaking point where I thought, OK, I need to meditate more, so I took a bunch of mushrooms and went through it and came out on the other side feeling fantastic. The next day, they announced the shutdown.

We called an emergency meeting at Guerilla Tacos on what to do next because restaurants around the city were closing. I sat across from my team, saying things like “it’s fine. We’ll get through this,” and they were looking at me like, “what the hell is wrong with this guy?” I was totally optimistic at the time, but since it’s all come into play, I had to change the way we run the shop. We were already selling catering packages, so that made things easily maneuverable. The hard part was laying off 50 employees and trying to streamline the business to stay afloat enough through this so that we don’t permanently close. 

We turned our catering packages into emergency taco kits when we saw that takeout wasn’t really working for other restaurants. The kits come with about 60 tacos, a roll of toilet paper, and 30 eggs. We wanted to offer something that people can use for three to four days, and since our managers tend to buy in bulk because we’re a restaurant, we have a shitload of eggs and toilet paper on hand.

Now that I’m working from home, I’ve been doing online training sessions with the team in Japan to stay sane. Every day at 6 p.m. I jump on Skype and watch them cook in real time. I sit with the recipes and ratios I’ve given them in front of me and tell them things like, “that needs more of this,” and they’ll respond like, “well chef, you said this amount?” and I’m always like, “just add more.”

When I’m not working, my wife Tanya and I put on our face masks and go for five-mile walks to pick up curbside coffee at Proof. At night, we head to the rooftop in our building to smoke cigars with our neighbors, socially distanced of course. Sometimes we take our dogs on walks in the neighborhood and crush a bottle of wine split between two pint glasses. Those walks really help us stay sane. So does cooking at home. 

When this thing first started, I was cooking whatever we couldn’t sell from the restaurant, so I was making Nueske bacon and egg tacos with caviar and butter filled tortillas. After a while, we started craving the food we can’t go out to buy right now. I was craving menudo, so I made some and put it up into quart containers and dropped a bunch of it off to friends and my brother. It was nice to drop it off and talk to them from six feet away. We always have too many leftovers so we have a quarantine food exchange with our neighbors. One of them is Indian, so we’ll swap Mexican food for Indian food and Indian food for some of the other stuff that I make. Today, I want to make something comforting, so I’m going to make a chicharrón pork rib chile verde. Real grandma cooking, which is slow and low. And by making a lot of it, it gives me an excuse to give it away to friends.

Since I work in food, I’m super grateful for places like Silverlake Wines, Super King Market, Gourmet Imports (they shot me out a bunch of cheese and showed me some love), Eagle Rock Brewery, Frogtown Brewery, Kernel of Truth for keeping us stocked with tortillas, Proof Bakery, which is keeping my wife nice and thick, and Regent Coffee. I can’t wait until we can easily visit all of these places again.

When the pandemic lifts, my dream day in Los Angeles starts with coffee at Proof, followed by taking the boys out to the dog park, and then an epic Dodger night game—the kind where we can pre-game at a brewery and take an Uber over to the stadium to watch them kick the shit out of anybody. My sister has season tickets, so I’ll probably see her there. We’ll be in it with all the other Angelenos wearing Dodger blue and going ape shit because we’ve been so pent up inside. I look forward to that view. Or maybe we’ll pick up some Gus’s Fried Chicken and head to Hollywood Bowl to watch Beck perform. The next day, we’ll drive to Jolly Oyster in Ventura, eat three dozen oysters. I’m gonna drink champagne until I can’t see straight. 

We’re all in this together.

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