This week, our recipe combines two great things: the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market and Wes Avila’s signature sweet potato taco recipe from his new cookbook “Guerrilla Tacos.”
This particular taco recipe was just being developed during Guerrilla Tacos’ early days—before the truck, back when Avila was cooking illegally on a hibachi in the Arts District. He says he is trying to get back to the level of creativity he had during that time with his new brick-and-mortar location, which will also be called Guerrilla Tacos.
Avila says this location will give him some much-needed freedom from the stresses of cooking out of a food truck. He says, “People watch the movie ‘Chef’ and it really romanticizes food truck life. But they don’t show when it breaks down. They don’t show when you post up and nobody comes.”
Also this week, Market Report correspondent Laura Avery chatted about sweet potatoes with Jessica Largey, chef and owner of the soon-to-be opened restaurant Simone in the Arts District and Kong Thao of Thao Farms in Fresno. Largey says she is currently prepping a sweet potato dish, with tahini sauce, shishito peppers, tangerines, and mustard greens. Yes, please!
SWEET POTATO TACO
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.
3 pounds sweet potatoes (Japanese sweet potatoes are best, the long and thin kind with the
red skin), skins on
4 tablespoons corn nuts
1 bunch of scallions, green parts only, sliced about 1⁄8 inch thick (reserve the white parts for something else)
Prepare the potatoes: 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.
Prepare the salsa (recipe below)
Crisp the taters: 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.
Assemble the tacos: On top of each tortilla, add, in this order, three or four slices of potato, 1 tablespoon salsa, 1 tablespoon feta, 1 tablespoon corn nuts, and a sprinkle of scallions. Serve immediately.
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
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
Brown the chiles: 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.
Combine ingredients: When the garlic is slightly golden brown, add the tomatillos, roasted peppers, water, and 1 teaspoon salt to the pan. 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.
Blend and season: 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.
Reprinted with permission from Guerrilla Tacos, copyright © 2017 by Wes Avila, with Richard Parks III. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Photographs copyright © 2017 by Dylan James Ho and Jeni Afuso