El Jefe Cubanos
Chefs who have vast experience in the fine-dining restaurant world are taking their skills to the streets. Literally. But here’s the kicker, just because they’re not in a cloth napkin setting and the food they serve is not plated “cook book photo ready,” the product remains the same.
Guerrilla Tacos is slowly becoming indoctrinated as a consistently perfect food truck in the Los Angeles dining scene. The truck sits outside Handsome Coffee Roasters, in the Arts District of downtown Los Angeles. Chef Wesley Avila took all of his culinary training and prominence in the farm-to-table world and started serving $3 tacos using the same ingredients one will see at a multiple Michelin star restaurant.
Though there are almost 300 food trucks driving across Los Angeles and Greater Los Angeles County give or take every year, Guerilla Tacos has remained one of it’s kind, until a couple of months ago when El Jefe Cubanos hit the asphalt.
Luckily, they are not in direct competition with one another. El Jefe Cubanos parks down Abbot Kinney in Venice and is more of a pop-up food truck that is only seen during the summer. Conceived in Miami, where the chef de cuisine specializes in foraging and making under the table deals with the best butchers and farmers around town. He took a dilapidated Ford E450 Step Van and applied a fresh coat of brightly colored paint on the exterior and new set of top-rated tires. Inside, he decorated it with the Rolls Royce of griddles, rotating spits, and every pot and hotel pan a person can Tetris into a kitchen almost as small as a Manhattan studio apartment.
I don’t consider the proprietor of El Jefe Cubanos a guerrilla (that name is already taken). He is a renegade. When he started his food truck, he didn’t care about the bureaucratic BS it takes to run a food truck operation, he only cared about the creative side to it, the food.
The menu consists of three items on a chalkboard. Two of the three items constantly change while only one of them remains a constant. That’s the Mojo Pork Cubano. I’ve eaten plenty of Cubans in my lifetime. I currently live in Los Angeles where probably the best Cuban sandwich is at a well-known Cuban bakery called Porto’s. It’s on the way to the Bob Hope Airport and I always stop and grab a cheap thrill before I catch a plane.
I didn’t mind the fine dining spin El Jefe Cubanos puts on the Latin workingman’s greasy sandwich. At seven dollars, it’s two to three dollars more than what you’ll find from the usual vendor but you’re paying for quality, not quantity. Everything else on the sandwich is the same: the ham is ham, the mustard is lightly smeared only to annunciate the flavor, and the mini baguettes didn’t bother me, though I am a traditionalist and like my Cuban on Cuban Bread. You order the Cuban at El Jefe because of the pork shoulder. It’s rubbed in Mojo sauce, a blend of garlic, citrus, and olive oil blend, then cooked low and slow for several hours until it is as tender as a Marvin Gaye album. There were times where I disregarded the entire sandwich itself and only ate the thinly cut non-Kosher meat with my hand. There’s no need to practice good etiquette. You grab it immediately from the pick-up window, step five paces away from the line, stop, and eat wherever you are right then and there.
The medianoche was mediocre. It was right below the Cuban and was the exact same thing as the Cuban but with a sweeter bread in place of the baguette and nasty grizzle bits from the pork shoulder. I felt as if I was eating sloppy seconds. What would be best, and this is strictly for marketing purposes, is when the clock strikes midnight, erase the Cuban from the menu entirely and only serve the medianoche. I’m almost positive sales will increase.
As much as I try to acclimate myself with tostones, I always find the side dish to be bland and boring. A red chili sauce is served with El Jefe’s version. It brings out the flavor kind of like how red pepper honey sauce heightens a hush puppy. They’re sliced evenly, but not as thin and translucent as a potato chip, just enough thickness to hold and fully grasp the flavor one at a time.
The Yucca Fries with Banana Ketchup felt as if they were the left out child trying to get attention. I understand why they’re on the menu but after having the tostones, I don’t really need anything else. Plus, I will always be biased towards malt vinegar. It’s the Irish in me, what can I say:)
Desserts are missing on the menu. On a hot summer day, I could imagine a jalapeño-spiced, red rhubarb granita. Or a simple flan topped with a dry Mexican butter cookie. I’m a sucker for those homemade fruit paletas that you can always receive from yelling street vendors in East L.A. I prefer the coconut to the strawberry. I’m sure if the owner of El Jefe got ahold of the recipe; he would do wonders to it.
The drink selection was unimpressive. I applaud El Jefe Cubanos for actually selling Mexican Coca Cola that was bottled and packaged in Mexico and not the American Mexican Coke that has been popular to hipsters for the last five years. Unfortunately, there’s no horchata of any kind, a staple one will find at any regular taco truck. I’m sure El Jefe Cubanos has rice, milk, and cinnamon in its tiny refrigerator and pantry. There are probably some farm fresh melons and citrus too that would make a great milk infusion. I can only dream.
The curb is your best option to sit. I prefer to eat standing up. Condiments are not present. El Jefe Cubanos could use some large buckets of pickled carrots, onions, shallots, and chilies. “You get it as is,” at this food truck. Where’s the fun in that?
There is never a bathroom when you want one, so you better have a plan mapped out just in case DEFCON 5 hits.
However, El Jefe Cubanos has more going for it than it might seem. The ingredients are top notch and are sourced from independent ma and pa purveyors who are always in the same city as the food truck. I remember the employees of El Jefe going to I-M-P for some immaculate sushi grade fish. At the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market on Wednesday mornings, Laura Avery, the market’s supervisor, says El Jefe Cubanos pulls up at 7am and is always the first in line.
Because the menu constantly changes, I’m optimistic that we’ll be seeing more options sooner than later. In March, El Jefe Cubanos did offer one of the best fruit salads I’ve probably ever had. It consisted of cherimoyas and sumos. It was rich and creamy like ice cream. When the El Jefe truck goes to Texas or any other state noted for their barbecue, its roasts are hand picked from award winning rib and pig joints.
The music blasts off of two loud intercom megaphones. It creates a party atmosphere no matter what environment the truck is in. I heard it play Tupac in Los Angeles and Louie Armstrong in New Orleans.
I wonder where El Jefe Cubanos is going to get its al pastor when it plugs in the horizontal rotating spit I always see laying in the back of the truck. I’ve also heard that El Jefe is toying around with roasted squab and Gochujang, a Korean hot sauce. These hearsays alone give me enough reason to do a second review.
ATMOSPHERE: Loud and proud, full of young and old foodies alike and everyone in-between. Fun, animated, and vibrant. Usually consists of a beach vibe because the truck tends to park next to a body of water of some kind.
SERVICE: Fast like Speedy Gonzales. Before you even hand the cashier your credit card or cash, your meal is hot and ready.
SOUND LEVEL: Over zealous but in a good way.
RECOMMENDED: Cubanos and tostones. Also, whatever the “special,” is whether it be an entrée or side.
DRINKS AND WINE: Only Mexican Coke.
PRICES: Sandwiches and sides $7 and $8. Mexican Coke is $3.
OPEN: Whenever the employees at El Jefe Cubanos stop, open their windows and yell, “We’re open.” You have to check their social media updates.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
Smoking: Respect the city’s laws wherever the food truck is stationed at.