From a Chef’s Burnout, a Singular Los Angeles Restaurant Emerges

Wes Avila made his name popping up around Los Angeles selling wildly expressive tacos, his improbable mission in the name: Guerrilla Tacos.

There were carnitas sometimes, under a green ripple of salsa, but what really got people’s attention at this teeny street cart was more unexpected: crisp-edged pork belly, duck confit, seared vegetables, fresh sardines, sea urchin. Whatever excellent ingredients he could get his hands on, composed with a sprightly and joyful maximalism.

Mr. Avila grew his operations from the cart to a truck, then to a proper Guerrilla Tacos restaurant, then two. In 2020, he opened Piopiko, an offshoot of the taqueria inside the Ace Hotel in Kyoto, Japan, that specializes in taco sets. But something else happened that year: “I lost my mojo,” Mr. Avila said. “I got burned out.”

If Mr. Avila’s cooking life were turned into a movie, we’d now find ourselves at the end of the second act. The protagonist, a chef from Los Angeles reaching for his own kind of Alta California cuisine, has found celebrity and success, only to feel so fragile and unmotivated that he stops going to work.

What does he do instead? He whiles away the time on Zoom calls, and starts drinking a little too heavily. What he needs, he quickly realizes, is to snap out of it. A few months later, Mr. Avila finds a small, empty space in Mandarin Plaza in Chinatown, with a commercial wok in the kitchen, a glass takeout window and a sprawling open-air courtyard. He names it Angry Egret Dinette.

Lines grow outside on the weekends, under the shade of a grape arbor, for immense breakfast tortas filled with scrambled eggs and sausage, for sweaty iced coffees, for tostadas covered with fresh seafood, for braised oxtails with French fries. By Christmas, Mr. Avila is using that old wok to steam sweet, tender tamales stuffed with duck confit in mole, and we are breaking into the third act.

Dinner, which happens only on Friday and Saturday nights, might include a whole sea bream with vivid, charred salsa. Another night, you’ll find fried Puerto Nuevo-style lobsters with rice, beans, freshly made tortillas, melted butter and salsas. The shrimp po’ boy, which could just as easily be called a Baja shrimp torta, is a dream of a sandwich, dripping with salsa negra and chipotle aioli. Daily specials are constant and unpredictable, even now, almost two years since the restaurant opened.

Part of Angry Egret’s appeal is what I think of as a distinctly Los Angeles sensibility: fine-dining-quality ingredients, handled with care, but served without any of the associated pretensions. It’s what made Mr. Avila’s earlier work so appealing, and it’s part of what makes Angry Egret special now.

This also means it’s the kind of restaurant that could easily be overlooked, or underestimated, with its lack of host stand and minimal table service —  a style that’s increasingly common, whether by choice, or not, as restaurants struggle to hire and retain staff.

Johnny Lee recently moved his wonderful Cantonese diner Pearl River Deli into a large dining room, where you fill up your own water cups from the kind of big orange cooler you might see on the edge of a soccer field. At Yangban, a new restaurant and deli run by Katianna and John Hong, two serious fine-dining chefs, you stand in line to pay for the premixed cocktails in the cooler before you even sit down to dinner. Ice comes later, in a small bucket, dropped at your table.

The continuing server shortage is reshaping service in so many ways, but it doesn’t mean that kitchens don’t shine. Mr. Avila and his sous-chef Bryan Landeros get whole, fresh fish delivered almost every day — sheepshead, John Dory, grouper, halibut — and butcher them to make brilliant tostadas, aguachiles and some of the city’s finest Baja-style fish tacos.

The fish is battered, fried and tucked inside a fine flour tortilla from La Princesita Tortilleria in East Los Angeles. Drenched while still hot in at least three completely different and excellent salsas — one raw and fresh, one mellow and creamy, one oily and smoky, which run into one another through wisps of raw cabbage — it forms a juicy and life-affirming mess.

You might notice that the menu has been leaning more toward seafood lately. That’s because it sometimes functions as a testing ground for Ka’Teen, the lush Yucatecan seafood restaurant in the Tommie Hollywood hotel, where Mr. Avila doesn’t work day to day, but pops in to train staff on new dishes.

It’s one more reason that Angry Egret can feel a bit like a restless test kitchen alive to its muse — experimental and in motion, with most misses improving in real time, sometimes even in the same day, as a lunch special is reconfigured for dinner.

I have yet to order a fried squash blossom sandwich that wasn’t holding onto an unpleasant and excessive amount of oil, a disappointment since it’s one of the few vegetarian options. And desserts can be inconsistent too, with a recent pan de elote soaked like tres leches cake, but remaining a bit too dense and dry to do right by the form. It will probably disappear soon.

Every kitchen is a work in progress, adapting as the months and years go by, with moments of accelerated creativity — days, weeks where things click into place and the menu rushes forward. Angry Egret can seem defined by that energy, its new dishes popping up like thoughts, faster than Mr. Avila can speak.

Angry Egret Dinette, 970 North Broadway, Suite 114, Los Angeles; 213-278-0987; aedinette.com



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