The private life of a chef is an endearingly old-fashioned conceit in an age when cookbooks double as memoirs and the lifting of a food truck’s concession window can operate, often quite literally, as the curtain drawn on an ad hoc TV set. Fourth wall? Maybe fourth taco.
But here we are again with Wes Avila, not in his recently opened Arts District taqueria Guerrilla Tacos, but at home, with his wife, Tanya Mueller, cooking a holiday meal for a few of their friends.
This year he’s putting together a Mexican Christmas trifecta — tamales, tacos and champurrado — done in a style that has become his signature: thoughtful, innovative, but with satisfaction front and center. The recipes he prepares are partly improvised, partly nostalgic; he’s been fixated on what he can do to make his cooking more drought-friendly, so today everything is vegetarian.
When I arrive, Avila, a big guy with a surfeit of tattoos and, these days, of gray in his beard, is already cooking, moving with professional ease between the stove and the kitchen island of the Glendale loft he shares with Mueller and their two dogs. There’s a bar at the end of the island: a bottle of Johnnie Walker Green Label stands next to a Ruth Bader Ginsburg “dissent” veladora, or jar candle. Mueller (Red by Matrix hair, doctorate in clinical psychology) is setting out ingredients and dishes and relocating the evidence from last night’s party. Another party?
“They’re never professional,” says Avila of the personal party circuit he and Mueller have created over the last dozen years. “So I can act and be myself.” Last night was their Christmakwanzakah, with the theme — they’re always themed — of Havana Nights. Today will be four friends rather than 40, old friends to share a homey meal that looks back to food from Avila’s Pico Rivera childhood.
Friends arrive and slide behind the kitchen counter, picking up knives and bottles. “The green onions: Cut them like you would for ramen, nice and thin,” Avila says. Sara Kenas and Amy Lebrun are both chefs; Martha and Joaquin Pinto are longtime members of the group. They’ve all done this before. A Christmas tree fills the window that looks down onto the communal area, the site of many previous parties. On the wall: a Thomas Guide map of Los Angeles and Orange County that Avila found in a thrift store; a steampunk tin wild boar from Popotla, outside Rosarito in Baja (“It’s a mascot for parties.”); and Mexican artwork jigsawed around shelves loaded with cookbooks and tiki paraphernalia.
As the discussion meanders around politics and the regional variations of pupusas, Avila spreads masa preparada across corn husks for tamales. (The texture of the masa is like buttercream, and we keep poking the plastic bag it came in, picked up that morning from Carnitas Uruapan in Boyle Heights, where Avila also got masa for the champurrado.)
“I have an Aunt Becky who’d make tamales every year,” Avila says, wrapping the tamales like presents and then loading them into a pot on the stove. Avila forms extra masa into a smiley face (“you have to do that to keep the evil spirits away,” he says , smiling) on the top of the foil-wrapped pot, a trick he and Mueller learned years ago at a cooking school in Oaxaca.
“Wes always makes them; we never buy them,” Mueller says. But “if he were to buy them, he’d get them from Vargas in Pico Rivera.” (If not Vargas Mexicatessen, Carnitas Urupan sells not only masa but fresh and frozen tamales, as well as ingredients for champurrado, including the wooden whisks known as molinillos. The late Jonathan Gold — whose silhouette is painted on a wall at Guerrilla Tacos, a booth that can, for some of us, act as a kind of taco confessional — liked Me Gusta in Pacoima for his holiday tamales.)
“Another aunt, Hermelinda, would make champurrado and atole during the holidays.” While the tamales steam, Avila twirls his molinillo through a ceramic pitcher of champurrado, a warm, homey drink made with masa and chocolate, which he spikes with pineapple juice.
When asked what area of Mexico the dishes are from, Avila grins and says: “L.A.”
The story goes like this: Avila grew up in a Pico Rivera family, with a Teamster father who took over the cooking after Avila’s mother died. By his own account, Avila ate and smoked his way through his teenage years, becoming a DJ and driving a forklift until he quit to go to cooking school at the now-defunct Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. (Turns out, Avila and I graduated at about the same time, though I didn’t know this until recently.) Then fine dining stints with chefs Walter Manzke and Gary Menes, and then a kind of street food epiphany, in which he swapped white tablecloths for a sometimes illegal taco cart. Want more? “It’s in the book,” says Avila, referencing his debut cookbook, “Guerrilla Tacos: Recipes From the Streets of L.A.,” which came out last year. This is in answer to one of his friends asking for the recipe for the sauce he’s just made and is spooning over a warm tamale, but it could be an answer to most things, including the pozole he’ll make for yet another holiday party.
The tamales steaming, the champurrado on the stove, Avila presses tortillas on a wooden press he brought back from a long-ago trip to Mexico, sandwiching balls of orange dough between a deconstructed plastic baggie. He uses yams for the tortillas “because I like the color, and yam uses a little less water to produce than sweet potato.”
“Now I’m going to put it on the menu,” Avila says of the yam tortillas — but with the French cultured butter Beurre de Baratte and a little sea salt. “For a while we were putting Beurre de Baratte on the waffles on the truck,” he says, maybe with wistfulness, maybe with relief that those days were done.
For now, the future looks like another party, pozole or a vat of Avila’s dad’s menudo. (In the book.) The menudo is part of “my family’s trifecta,” Avila says. “Some would argue that it’s pozole, tamales, champurrado, but that’s debatable.”
Or it may be heche de mano childhood tortillas, made by a guy in his bricks-and-mortar restaurant, a little butter, a little salt. Raise a glass, get another tamale, close the door behind you.
Guerrilla Tacos: 2000 E. 7th St., Los Angeles, (213) 375-3300, guerrillatacos.com
Carnitas Uruapan: 2100 E. César E Chávez Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 265-2474, next door to Guisados in Boyle Heights