I still have the text from Tyler Wells, then co-owner of Handsome Coffee Roasters. It was August 27, 2012. I had been asking him about setting up a taco stand in front of the coffee shop, and he finally texted and said, “Yeah, man, bring by the cart.” I asked, “When?” and he said, “Tomorrow!” So I dropped everything, went shopping that day, and started cooking.
That first day I made $110. At the time I thought, Hey, that’s not bad! Then the next week it was busier, and the week after, even busier. Eventually I had to tell chef Gary Menes, my boss at Le Comptoir, that I couldn’t help him anymore. I took a leap of faith and quit. The first time I was able to pay rent exclusively with tacos, I got choked up. That was when I knew I was onto something.
I don’t know why I was so drawn to the taco. I had been doing fine dining for years, working for some of the best chefs in the city: Walter Manzke, Gary Menes—for a short time in Paris I was with Alain Ducasse. I loved using the best ingredients, and I even loved the templelike structure and discipline. But I was burned out on being so exact and perfect. I wanted to do something more approachable, and it’s hard to find a food more approachable than a taco. You just stand in line, order it, and it comes to you. That’s how I want to present things like uni or truffles to people who’ve never tasted them, or who could never order the $45 truffle supplement. That was me for most of my life. So you know what? I’m going to throw truffles on a tortilla and charge 12 bucks. Anyone can afford $12 to taste something so unique. It’s not about wanting to make fancy tacos; it’s about making good food more accessible to the masses.
With Guerrilla, I didn’t set out to do something different; I set out to do something good. When I first told people I wanted to open the best taquería in L.A., I didn’t know what that was going to be. I just knew I wanted to make tacos better than any I’d ever had with the very best ingredients—something drilled into me by all my previous bosses. And I wanted to open something that fused my experience in gourmet restaurants, my travels, my childhood growing up in Pico Rivera, and my identity as Mexican American. For me that was the taco. It’s my ultimate creative vehicle.
This article appears in Los Angeles magazine’s June 2015 cover story, “Taco City.”