October 17, 2017
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The Sweet Potato Taco With the Cult Following

They say there’s no such thing as fall in Los Angeles, but we do have Wesley Avila’s sweet potato taco.

This autumnal taco is an unlikely favorite in a room-temperature town like Los Angeles: a pile of Japanese sweet potatoes (skins on), boiled in heavily salted water, sliced into coins and cooked to golden brown with thyme and a lot of butter; garnished with fried corn, crumbles of French feta cheese, diced scallions, and a thick, nutty chile de arbol/almond/roasted red pepper salsa that’s equal parts romesco and taco-truck salsa verde. Corn tortilla, of course. It is Guerrilla Tacos’ best-selling taco and the only taco served year round on a menu that otherwise changes constantly.

Since I coauthored the Guerrilla Tacos cookbook with Avila, people often ask me what to order at his popular L.A. food truck. And I always suggest ordering the sweet potato taco first.

Why? Because it’s delicious and absolutely unique. Because when you bite into a Guerrilla Tacos sweet potato taco, you get sweet and fat and crisp and mush from the potatoes, sour from the feta, fresh vegetal bite from the green onions, spice and smoke and tart from the chile de arbol/almond/red pepper/tomatillo salsa—and the unmistakable crunch of a corn nut.

Wes Avila

Why else? Because when when you bite into this taco, you’re also biting into Wes Avila’s life. Because this unlikely iconic dish—and its papery refraction, the recipe that opens our cookbook—are the result of continual influences and experiments and social coincidences that reach back to the chef’s childhood.

Avila’s mother, Judy, was always the cook in the family, and the Guerrilla Tacos cookbook is filled with recipes reimagined from her cooking. He dedicates the book to her memory. When Avila was still in high school, Judy succumbed to a quick illness and died. While the family was in mourning, Avila’s aunt Hermelinda started bringing over reheatable dinners for Avila, his brother, and his sister. This was the chef’s first potato taco.

“They were fucking bomb,” Avila says. “Super peppery tacos de papa dorados. Mashed russets stuffed into corn tortillas, folded over and pierced with a toothpick to keep it all together, and deep fried in lard.”

Tia Hermelinda would bring over Super A grocery market bags filled with these for the fridge, plus a big container of charred serrano and tomatillo salsa. The kids basically subsisted on them, pulling them out of the refrigerator to reheat as snacks.About a year after his mother’s death, Avila’s tia stopped bringing over as many meals, and he stopped eating potato tacos for the next 15 years.

“I refused to buy them in a restaurant. It was something you’d only make at home,” says Avila.

In his 20s Avila started working in restaurants, but he had yet to make a single taco. He was going to be a fine-dining chef. During one unusually cold Los Angeles winter, working at Le Comptoir as a cook, he was making a lot of sweet potato soup with sherry, shallots, and braised leeks. Served with goat cheese and spiked again with sherry after being plated, it became one of Avila’s favorite dishes. Several years later, Avila started making tacos at staff meals with leftover sweet potatoes prepped for the soup. He’d sauté them on the plancha with tons of butter and garlic and make a quick salsa: a tomato roasted in the flame of the stovetop, half an onion, a jalapeño, lime, salt.

“I just needed to feed the staff,” he said. “So I made potato tacos. I wasn’t thinking of my tia or my mother.”

The first day Avila sold tacos from a cart on the street, there were just two tacos: chicken and steak, and he soon realized that he would need a vegetarian option.The first iteration was a fine farm-sourced potato—not yet a sweet potato—with roasted corn and a thick roasted tomatillo salsa. Basically, he realized, he was making his aunt’s taco.

“They were good, but they were too home-style,” he says. “I wanted to make something more unique, more me.”

During an unusually cold winter, Avila recalled the sweet potato soup from Le Comptoir, and he based his dish on that. In the next iteration of the Guerrilla Tacos potato taco, he replaced the soup’s goat cheese with a thick Oaxacan cheese melted on the tortilla. He kept the leeks, which he’d buy at the farmers’ market and braise with wine, herbs, and spices at his apartment the night before service. He was starting out and doing very ambitious food. It didn’t matter if it took too much time. It was more than subsistence.

A recent trip to Spain inspired an almond salsa closer to a romesco or ajo blanco than a Mexican salsa. Using a technique he’d learned in fine-dining kitchens, Avila soaked the almonds overnight and removed their skins for a cleaner, smoother texture in puree, and a brighter flavor as a garnish.

The taco was great—but it took forever to make, and cost too much. As the months passed, Avila did away with the Oaxacan cheese, which he’d started using in quesadillas instead. He replaced the leeks with scallions to save cost and the time of braising. And he tweaked the salsa to mimic a roasted red pepper and garlic spread at Carousel, a popular Armenian restaurant in his adopted city of Glendale.

One day he saw a bin of corn nuts in the market and realized he’d found the crunch that was missing from the almonds.

“I knew corn nuts would be money.”

Somewhere along the way, Avila’s wife, Tanya, suggested he look at the numbers to see which of the Guerrilla Tacos tacos was selling best.“I was expecting the lamb or the pig head or the campachana with five kinds of fish and an oyster shucked to order,” he said. But it was the taco full of sweet potatoes and corn nuts—a reminder of childhood and a reminder of fall in a city with no seasons.


  • 3 pounds sweet potatoes, skins on
  • Kosher salt
  • Almond Salsa
  • 1 tablespoon lard or canola oil
  • ½ cup loose-packed dried, stemmed, and roughly torn dried chiles de árbol
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3 tablespoons slivered almonds
  • 1 pound tomatillos, husked and rinsed
  • 1 cup rough-chopped store-bought roasted red bell peppers
  • ½ cup water
  • Kosher salt
  • Tacos
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 dried habanero chile (use half if you don’t like your salsa too spicy), stemmed
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more as needed
  • 3 thyme sprigs
  • 8 corn tortillas, warmed
  • 4 ounces feta cheese (Valbreso if you can find it), crumbled
  • 4 tablespoons corn nuts
  • 1 bunch of scallions, green parts only, sliced about 1⁄8 inch thick (reserve the white parts for something else)

Influenced by both his Mexican background and experience at fine dining establishments, Wesley Avila’s unconventional tacos have garnered plenty of buzz beyond his home base in Los Angeles. His cookbook, Guerrilla Tacos, gives you a taste of L.A.’s taco trucks wherever you are. 

After my mom passed away, my aunt used to make us tons of tacos de papa dorados—basically mashed potatoes inside a tortilla either folded or rolled up like a flauta and fried—and leave them in big bags in the fridge. My friends and I would grab a few, microwave them, smother them in tart, fresh, bright-green tomatillo salsa, and wolf them down while watching episodes of Richard Bey. It’s a casero-style (homemade) snack, sort of like a Hot Pocket. You wouldn’t really see these on a menu anywhere. So when I first got the cart, I figured why not make this taco with a few modifications?

The idea here is comfort—a little sweet from the potatoes, a little tart from the French feta, some crunch from the fried corn, and some heat from the salsa. The salsa isn’t a Mexican thing; it’s a Spanish thing, like a romesco with added spice from the habanero and chiles de árbol. At first we were doing this with Oaxacan melted cheese and braised leeks, but we don’t have the time and space to braise leeks, so we add the fresh scallions instead. I like a lot of onion on my tacos. These days you can probably get something like this at other places, but back when we started out, you would never see sweet potato on a taco. Other things cycle in and out seasonally, but this is on the menu year-round because it is our best-selling taco.


  1. In a large saucepan or 6-quart stockpot, combine the sweet potatoes and enough cold water to cover. Add salt until it’s as salty as the sea. Set over high heat and bring to a boil, then turn the heat to a gentle simmer. Simmer the potatoes until they’re just cooked—you can stick a knife into one and it comes out clean—about 12 minutes. Drain and set the potatoes aside. When they’re cool enough to handle, slice them into 3⁄4-inch coins or bite-size pieces and set aside.
  2. To make the almond salsa: While the potatoes are simmering, warm a cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat. When the pan is hot, add the lard. Once the lard is melted, add the chiles de árbol. When the chiles are browned all over and smelling toasty, add the garlic and almonds and cook for 30 seconds. Don’t burn the garlic! Burnt garlic is the worst. When the garlic is slightly golden brown, add the tomatillos, roasted peppers, water, and 1 teaspoon salt to the pan.
  3. Cover and cook until the tomatillos are mushy, about 8 minutes—they should split easily and break apart when you push them with a spoon.
  4. Remove the skillet from the heat and, using a slotted spoon, transfer the solid ingredients to a blender and reserve the cooking liquid in the pan. Add the olive oil, red wine vinegar, and habanero to the blender. Cover the blender well and watch out you don’t touch the hot chile seeds during this part. Blend until the salsa is nice and smooth, and then season with salt. You want a little acidity, plus the sweetness from the roasted peppers and heat from the habanero and chiles de árbol. Check the salsa and add some of the leftover cooking liquid to reach your desired consistency. It should be almost as thick as a milk shake.
  5. Put your largest cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and warm the butter until it’s melted and bubbling but not burning. Add a layer of the potatoes to the pan—you want both sides of each potato slice to get a little browned, but not tough or crispy. Add some of the thyme and cook the potatoes until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Flip them and brown the other side. Set the browned potatoes aside on a plate and cover with foil to keep them warm. Repeat until all the sweet potatoes are browned, using more butter as needed.
  6. On top of each tortilla, add, in this order, three or four slices of potato, 1 tablespoon salsa, 1 tablespoon feta, ½ tablespoon corn nuts, and a sprinkle of scallions. Serve immediately.

Richard Parks III

Richard Parks III writes about food, makes movies, and recently started a job at Brilliance Publishing—an audiobook company owned by a start-up named after a major South American river—producing podcasts.

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