plate of tacos and other Chicano dishes

The World on a Tortilla

Meet the fearless Los Angeles chefs bringing bold new flavors to traditional Mexican cuisine—dishes that are rooted in the barrio but have no boundaries.

What do refried lentils, grilled sweet potatoes with almond salsa, and chorizo made entirely from mushrooms have in common? They all taste great on a corn tortilla. And they’re proof that when it comes to tacos, the rules are changing.

Mexican food in America is born from the sons and daughters of immigrants, steeped in recipes passed down for generations. Today, in Los Angeles, a new wave of Chicano chefs is pushing the boundaries of tradition to create dishes that resist easy categorization. The food is not conventionally Mexican and not New American, but defined by the mosaic of cuisines and cultures unique to the region. It’s the braised, charred, and chopped version of a saying that has been adopted by some Mexican Americans to proudly identify their dual roots: Ni de aquí, ni de allá. “Neither from here, or from there.”

On menus, this translates into an anything-goes attitude. The techniques of California’s finest kitchens go hand in hand with the bold flavors of L.A. street food. Mexican traditions are at the forefront, but these classically trained chefs are taking influences from all over the world as they obliterate the line between upscale and casual. This kind of cuisine has been called “Alta California,” a nod to Mexico’s own booming “Baja California” scene and a fitting name for a food and drink renaissance with such a strong sense of place. It could only come from this tortilla-fueled urban landscape whose identity has been shaped by its diversity.

The taqueros, or taco vendors, of Southern California have helped define the history of Mexican food in this country. Now new-school taqueros are defining its future. These chefs—including Carlos Salgado of Costa Mesa’s Taco María, Wesley Avila of Los Angeles’ Guerrilla Tacos, and Ray Garcia of Broken Spanish, in downtown L.A.—are blending the seasonal ingredients of California with the flavors and memories of their respective upbringings. In their food, the approachability of the taco truck meets the sophistication of the white tablecloth restaurant. It’s Alta California. It’s Chicano cuisine. It’s the flavor of New California. Whatever you want to call it, distilled to its essence, it’s Mexican food. And it’s more vibrant than ever.

Wesley Avila of Guerrilla Tacos

Wesley Avila isn’t too concerned with tradition. “My approach to food is like the traffic in L.A.,” he says. “Sometimes I go this direction, and sometimes I go that direction.” Avila has a mantra, which he deploys after a hashtag when sharing photos of his tacos on social media. It’s a rebellious sentiment honoring the city that continues to inspire him: “L.A. don’t play.”

Avila grew up in Pico Rivera, east of L.A., where home cooking meant tacos and other Mexican dishes, and he drove a forklift before going to culinary schools in California and France. He worked for years in fine dining, but Avila’s irreverent style was better suited for his next venture: a bona fide street taquero hauling around a graffiti-tagged grill.

After debuting his concept in a streetside food cart, Avila upgraded to Guerrilla Tacos, a truck that served what he calls “Angeleno” cuisine. His sweet potato taco was adored far and wide, and Avila built a loyal following by delivering upscale ingredients in street food fashion, at street food prices. He sold fresh sushi, thick slices of hamachi sashimi and uni, the kind and quality you might see on a $100-plus omakase dinner menu—at one-eighth the price, and served on top of a tostada.

Last year, Avila opened his brick-and-mortar in L.A.’s Arts District, the same neighborhood where he began plying his trade from a cart seven years ago. It’s the kind of place where you can chill with your favorite tío over a fish taco and a Tecate, or impress a hot date by pairing a cocktail with shared bites of tender, sauteéd calamari steak. On either occasion, you’re likely to hear hip-hop music playing from the speakers. Four walls and a roof can’t dull Avila’s edge.

Ray Garcia of Broken Spanish

Ray Garcia refers to his food as “authentically inauthentic.” Whatever his food is, it’s genuinely his own. “In L.A., there is no shortage of places that serve Mexican food, so I wanted to serve it through my lens,” he says. Garcia showed an early aptitude for creative meals. For example, bologna tacos were one of the first snacks he learned to make. “We didn’t have much money growing up, so I just charred stuff on the burner and made it into a taco,” he says. Years later, when Garcia opened his first Mexican restaurant, he featured a refined version of that bologna taco, with house-made mortadella and pickles.

After graduating from UCLA with degrees in political science and business economics and attending culinary school, Garcia went on to work at acclaimed restaurants in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. But Garcia knew he wanted to dedicate his life to preparing Mexican food—his way. He got a high-profile chance in 2013, when he made a number of head-turning pork dishes for a cooking competition. The most memorable may have been the “Pelon Pelo Puerco,” an inspired riff on a popular Mexican push-up candy that kept the treat’s squeezable bottle but replaced tamarind-flavored goo with a sort of pork pâté. Garcia, with his background in innovative fine cuisine and improvisational Mexican home cooking, was on to something.

In 2015, he opened Broken Spanish in downtown L.A., where he continues to shake up Mexican mainstays. Take the lamb neck tamales, or the beet pibil, a decidedly Californian take on the Yucatán Peninsula’s celebrated cochinita pibil—Garcia uses beets instead of the customary slow-roasted pork. “All our dishes are traditional and familiar,” he says. “They’re just done with California ingredients in a California style.”

Carlos Salgado of Taco Maria

“There’s nothing at the farmers market that can’t be prepared as Mexican food,” says Carlos Salgado. “It’s just a matter of fitting it into a memory about maize, chile, and citrus.” If Salgado’s Taco María had a mission statement, that would be it. But he knows well that it’s difficult to apply tidy definitions to anything as complex as food or identity. “To the Mexicans back in Mexico, I’m not Mexican, and to the Americans here in America, I’m not American,” he says.

Before opening Taco María in an unassuming storefront in a Costa Mesa shopping center, he worked for a decade in Michelin-rated restaurants around the Bay Area. While Salgado may have extensive experience in fine dining, his roots are in Mexican food. His family owned a combo-plate restaurant in Orange County, and Salgado says he still needs his pot of beans once a week.

Salgado’s thoughtful approach is evident in every item on Taco María’s menu, in dishes that filter eclectic ingredients through Mexican traditions. The mushroom-chorizo tacos come in tortillas made from dark blue heirloom corn from Atlacomulco, a couple hours outside Mexico City. His emerald green aguachile is electrically spicy and tart with serrano chile and lime. Instead of Pacific shrimp, there are scallops shipped from Hokkaido, Japan. But make no mistake about what you’re eating.

“I’m Mexican. I love Mexican food. So my food is Mexican,” Salgado says, using the same tone you would adopt in an effort to describe the meaning of life. He’s talking about great food, so, in a way, he is trying to describe the meaning of life.   


Javier Cabral is a writer based in L.A. Email him at theglutster@gmail.com.

Photography by Stephen DeVries; prop styling by Claire Spollen

Originally Published July 2019