When Wes Avila formally stepped away from his iconic flagship taqueria Guerrilla Tacos in early August, it seemed to trigger a wave of surprised alarm in local food circles.
In an Instagram post this summer announcing his departure, Avila noted, “Now, I have decided to step down as executive chef. I am looking forward to the ability to spend more time with my family.”
His departure from his Arts District outpost seemed to draw more attention than his quiet return to DTLA—this time in Chinatown—with Angry Egret Dinette in late October.
Located in the inner courtyard of Mandarin Plaza, the new concept offers a limited menu of breakfast items and sandwiches. Like his now-fabled tacos, the new menu creations at Angry Egret all reflect Avila’s interest in bringing his sophisticated, classically trained palate and techniques for humble dishes and ingredients.
On a stray visit one recent Sunday morning, the courtyard was in a quiet lull. The order window has a simple menu pasted on the glass. The cheerful Tanya Mueller answered questions and took orders. She’s Avila’s wife and business partner. Apparently, Avila had run off on an errand. He’s definitely spending more time with his family—in Chinatown.
Unlike the ongoing ripple of forced openings by restaurant operations otherwise blind-sided by the pandemic lockdown and restrictions, Avila and Mueller chose to open the Angry Egret Dinette deliberately and swiftly.
“We got the lease and five days later we opened,” Mueller said. “If you know my husband, that’s him. If he has an idea, the next day he’s doing it.”
The impetus came from a combination of quarantine doldrums and sudden opportunity.
“It was pure serendipity,” Mueller said. “We were hanging out at the house. Wes was getting stir crazy. He said, ‘If something comes up, I’m gonna jump at it.’ The very next day Yeekai (Lim) from Cognoscenti Coffee called and said, ‘I have this space.’ It seemed like divine providence.”
A native of Pico Rivera, Avila graduated from Rancho High School and joined the Teamsters, driving a forklift for seven years. Finally following his calling, he enrolled at the California School of Culinary Arts in South Pasadena.
Upon graduation in 2005, he matriculated into the kitchens of Walter Manske then at L’Auberge and Gary Menes at Palate Food+Wine and later Le Comptoir. In the meantime, he had traveled to France, where he studied under Alain Ducasse. After six years honing his classical technique in fine cuisine, he’d had enough. Following an ambition “to be the best taquero in Los Angeles,” he took to a food cart and a year later the truck and Guerrilla Tacos was born. The timing was excellent.
Following the high-low food truck trend that was sparked by Roy Choi’s Koji truck, the local mania for ingenious and inexpensive culinary compositions slung from food trucks was as hot as ever. The popular and critical sensation led to Avila’s opening Guerrilla Tacos in his first brick-and-mortar location in the Arts District in 2016.
Four successful years later—including the award of a Bib Gourmand by Michelin and the release of a cookbook—the pandemic unleashed itself while he was opening a new venue, Pio Piko Tacos, at the Ace Hotel in Kyoto, Japan. On his return to LA, he spent less time at Guerrilla Tacos and then abruptly announced his departure in the first week of August.
“After I left, I was in limbo,” Avila said.
“There wasn’t anything going on. It’s COVID. You’re at home. You’re trying to survive and trying to have some mental health with your partner, trying not to kill each other. After a while, I was like, dude, I want to get back to work. (I said) if an opportunity came up where I can take over a space, where there’s patio seating already and there’s a takeout window, I’d jump on it.”
As Mueller said the next day, the space arrived via Lim.
“I swear as soon as I walked in, (I said) holy (expletive), this is the space,” he said.
So, what’s with the name?
“We saw some egrets on the LA River,” he said. “It’s so iconic to Los Angeles. I’m into the weird oddities of Los Angeles. I wanted to represent something a little bit funkier from Los Angeles. I wanted to pay homage to the LA River.”
At this point, Avila’s reputation deservedly and understandably precedes him. Those in the know, know where to go. Before I could continue my Sunday chat with Mueller at the window, a gang of food-wise hipsters appeared in the courtyard and I ceded the order window to them.
As they deliberated on their orders, I approached the aptly named Chandler Chow, 35, of Los Angeles, who was happy to lend his opinion.
As he ordered the duck banh mi and pantomimed his golf swing, he offered, “Yeah, generally I’m a Wes Avila fan. I think he’s great. He’s a good representative for LA. He’s traditional but he mixes it up.”
So, what is being served? For breakfast, there are two finely crafted burritos: Hey Porky’s ($13) stuffed with roasted pork shoulder, scrambled eggs, pinto beans, Oaxacan cheese and salsa verde; and the Atwater ($12), which swaps the animal protein for shiitake mushrooms, roasted peppers, braised leeks, scrambled eggs, swiss cheese and salsa china.
There’s also a beef machaca flauta ($9) laced with onions, serrano chiles, salsa china and cilantro. (It’s parenthetically noted as “very spicy.”) Add a duck egg for an extra $4. Finally consider the pig foot chilaquiles ($18). These are chilaquiles tossed in mole negro with pig foot and fried duck egg, dressed out with Monterey Jack cheese and avocado.
If a sandwich is in order there are a variety of intriguing options, each sporting Avila’s uniquely original touch. Chandler’s duck banh mi ($18) should be self-explanatory to fans of banh mi, and this one is composed fairly traditionally. That said, it includes a whole seared duck breast with slivered cucumbers, carrots, cashews, bird’s-eye chiles, cilantro and sambal paste served on a crunchy baguette.
The Whittier Blvd ($13) actually requires description. Here, beef brisket, red peppers, avocado, queso fresco, horseradish cream and serrano chiles combine for the knock-out punch. The Mookie melt ($14) features a grilled chicken thigh with candied bacon, gruyere cheese, poblano salsa and scallions.
No meat? No problem. The Saguaro ($14) starts with tempura battered and fried broccolini and squash blossom, heirloom tomato, fresh market greens and ricotta with salsa macha.
There’s also a Baja shrimp po boy ($16) with fried shrimp and the requisite cabbage, pico de gallo and chipotle crema.
Yes, this is where you go to find braised leeks in a breakfast burrito and squash blossom tempura in your sandwich. It’s only Avila, and it’s always tasty. With Guerrilla Tacos, Avila demonstrated a wider scope of technique and imagination than most nouvelle taqueros, and he extends that brand of finesse here at the Angry Egret Dinette.
Chatting on the phone, Avila was interrupted as he directed his crew in a massive tamale-making project. For the holidays, he took orders for more than 200 dozen tamales in five varieties.
“It’s helping us stay afloat right now,” he explained just before Christmas.
“For New Year’s, we’re doing cheese and charcuterie boards to go—and we’re doing tamales for the Super Bowl as well. I’m just having fun here. I’m cooking the way I want to cook and the way I want to eat. We’ll do it for as long as we can.”