Sweet potato tacos with leeks and almond salsa

Time1 hour 30 minutes
YieldsServes 4 to 6
Sweet potato tacos with leeks and almond salsa
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Print RecipePrint Recipe

When Wes Avila was interviewing for a job at Le Comptoir, Gary Menes’ temple of vegetable cookery, Menes asked him what his ultimate career goal was.

“To be the best taquero in Los Angeles,” Avila replied.

And though it’s impossible to say who is the best taco cook in this city of splendid taco cooks, only a few years after working for Menes, the 35-year-old Pico Rivera native is just about guaranteed to be on any knowledgeable shortlist.

His Guerrilla Tacos truck, now 3 years old, serves compelling dishes that are equal in complexity to those at many fine-dining restaurants, even though they’re served on warm tortillas and eaten standing up.

In Guerrilla’s first year, Avila’s taco made with roasted squash, Oaxacan cheese, a hint of chile and smoky charred tomato made Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold’s list of best dishes of 2013.

Cooking with Avila at the Glendale condo he shares with wife, Tanya Mueller, a professor at East Los Angeles College, and their French bulldog mix, Pono Dog, that blend of French technique and Eastside soul is obvious.

To make the leek garnish for his sweet potato tacos, he first sears the leeks in butter, then poaches them until tender in a broth made with browned carrots and whole garlic cloves, fresh thyme and parsley and a bottle of wine. Then he pats them dry and sears them in butter again. And that’s just one element of the dish.

A few ribbons of those leeks go on a corn tortilla (he swears by La Princesita brand), with browned slices of creamy Oaxacan or panela cheese, a slice of roasted Japanese sweet potato that’s been fried in butter, a salsa made with almonds, pine nuts, chiles de arbol and tomatillos (the small ones, called milpero, have the best flavor, he says), crumbled feta and green onions.

The result is rich, mouth-filling flavor, at once creamy, salty, sweet and spicy, with an equally wide range of textures. It’s stupendous. And once the various elements have been prepped, all it takes is a couple of minutes and a griddle to finish. You could serve it as a taco, but it’s pretty enough to make a plated appetizer.

That’s the kind of attention to detail he learned working under chefs such as Menes and Republique’s Walter Manzke (then at Auberge Carmel).

A 2005 graduate of Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Pasadena, Avila started out on the typical big-deal restaurant track, including staging in France with Alain Ducasse. But he didn’t find it satisfying.

“I found myself getting drawn deeper and deeper into fine dining,” he says. “You know how intense that is: It’s like working at a temple. I was counting the number of peanuts that went onto a dish.

“It was a really good learning experience, but that wasn’t the direction I wanted to go with my cooking.”

So Avila started Guerrilla Tacos on a card table set up outside Handsome Roasters in downtown L.A. When that got shut down (he had no permits), he jumped on the first taco truck he could find.

A brick-and-mortar restaurant is still his dream, he says.

“I’ve always got people talking to me. They’ll say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a really good spot you have to go into.’ And then they ask if I have $200,000 to move in. No, but thank you for asking.”

Until then, Avila says, he’ll stick with selling tacos out of his truck.

“First, it’s my favorite food to eat. Plus, I love to interact with people, get face-to-face with my customers. I get to see what they like and what they don’t like. And believe me, they’ll tell you, whichever way.”

Tacos need flavor, crunch, balance

What does it take to make a great taco? Guerrilla Tacos’ Wes Avila says it comes down to crunch and balance.

“They have to have a mix of textures,” he says. “I don’t like one-dimensional. You want crunch meets soft. In my farmers market quesadillas, there are sauteed vegetables, Oaxacan cheese, then something fried for extra crunch, and raw arugula.

“It’s about layers of textures. Beef tendon is very gelatinous -- I make a beef tendon taco by putting the braised tendon in a shell and then deep-frying it. You get crunch and you get smooth. It keeps the palate interested.”

The same goes for flavor.

“You want layers of flavor too,” Avila says. “If you’re doing something braised, you want something sharp, like pickled onions or radishes or marinated cabbage.”

Almond salsa


Char the bell pepper over a burner or under a broiler until it is well-blackened on all sides. Wrap in a plastic bag and set aside until cool enough to handle, then peel and seed the pepper. Set aside.


Heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the chiles de árbol and habanero and toast until fragrant, about 3 minutes; toward the end of toasting, add the pine nuts and almonds and toast until fragrant.


Add the tomatillos, tomatoes, water and three-fourths teaspoon salt, and cook over high heat until the tomatillos are tender, about 5 minutes.


Purée in a blender until smooth, add the red wine vinegar and adjust seasoning. The salsa should be thick enough to generously coat the back of a spoon. This makes about 1 quart of salsa, more than enough for the recipe. The remainder will keep, covered tightly, in the refrigerator for a week.

Sweet potato tacos


Wrap the sweet potatoes tightly in microwave-proof plastic wrap and microwave on high until tender, 13 to 14 minutes.


Bring the white wine, thyme and parsley to a boil in a large saucepan and cook until it loses the raw alcohol smell, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to a bare simmer.


Trim and discard the tough green parts from the leeks, then cut them in ½-inch lengthwise strips, leaving them attached at the root. Swirl in water to remove any sand. Pat dry and salt lightly.


Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the leeks. Cook until well-browned, 5 minutes, then turn, add 1 tablespoon butter, and sear on the other side, another 3 to 4 minutes. Add to the white wine in the saucepan.


Add 2 tablespoons butter to the same skillet and when it is foaming add the carrots and cook until browned on one side, about 5 minutes. Turn the carrots over, add the whole unpeeled garlic cloves and cook until the carrots are browned on the second side, about 4 more minutes. Add the carrots to the wine wine and leeks.


Deglaze the skillet with some of the white wine, scraping up any residue that’s stuck to the bottom of the pan, add it back to the saucepan and cook gently until the leeks are tender, about 30 minutes. The leeks can stay in the liquid off heat for several hours.


When almost ready to serve, heat 2 tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Pull the leeks from the cooking liquid, pat them dry and add to the butter to cook briefly on both sides, about 3 minutes total. Remove, cut away the bases and cut the tops into 2-inch lengths.


Slice the unpeeled roasted sweet potatoes a little more than ½ inch thick. If the flesh has shrunk from the peel, remove it. Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Brown the sweet potatoes on both sides, about 5 minutes total, turning them carefully to keep them intact. Once they have browned, break up each slice into rough pieces to make them easier to eat.


For each taco, heat 2 tortillas on a griddle or in a large skillet over medium-high heat with a little butter. Place 2 slices of Oaxaca cheese next to them on the griddle and when the tortillas are warmed through, stack them on top of the cheese. You can do this with as many tortillas as will fit on the griddle.


When the cheese has browned on one side, remove the tortillas and cheese to a plate, cheese-side up.


Add 2 to 3 strips of leek and some sweet potato. Spoon over 1½ to 2 teaspoons salsa and sprinkle with 2 teaspoons crumbled feta, a few toasted pine nuts and 1 teaspoon minced green onions and serve immediately. Repeat using the remaining ingredients.

This is adapted from Wes Avila, chef at Guerrilla Tacos. You could also serve this as a plated appetizer, served on top of 1 tortilla, or, he suggests, with a fried egg on top.