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The Lopez siblings — Elizabeth, Fernando, Paulina, and Bricia—run Guelaguetza, the temple to Oaxacan food that their father founded in L.A.’s Koreatown. (Dean Cechvala)
The Lopez siblings — Elizabeth, Fernando, Paulina, and Bricia—run Guelaguetza, the temple to Oaxacan food that their father founded in L.A.’s Koreatown. (Dean Cechvala)

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Mole Means Love

Guelaguetza has become a culinary and cultural institution in Los Angeles and a staple of “best of” lists nationwide. But the James Beard award winner isn’t merely a hallmark of Oaxacan cuisine in America: It’s a testament to one family’s devotion to sharing its traditions with the world.

Bricia Lopez-Maytorena will always remember the smoke. As a girl growing up in Oaxaca, a region of southern Mexico known for its lively indigenous culture, abundant festivals, and collaborative cuisine, she spent hours as a child wandering through the market, helping her family gather meats, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables, and sometimes assisting her father, Fernando Lopez Sr., as he sold handmade batches of the agave-based spirit called mezcal.

"You would basically buy your meat and grill it there," says Bricia, now 32, sitting in a small office inside Guelaguetza, the Los Angeles restaurant her father opened in 1994, which she now owns and operates along with her three siblings, Paulina Lopez-Velazquez, 34; Fernando Lopez Jr., 29; and Elizabeth Lopez, 24. "We were very young, and all I remember was just a lot of smoke — walking through these hallways of endless smoke." Sometimes, her brother, Fernando, remembers, the family would stop between the market and their grandmother’s house and have a cookout in the woods. "Every time I taste a tortilla, or just meat, very simple food," he says, "it just reminds me of family."

In 1993, Fernando Sr. migrated to Los Angeles with the hope that he might forge a more prosperous life for that family in the United States than he could in Mexico, where an economic crisis was looming. For a year, his wife, Maria Monterrubio, and their kids remained behind in Oaxaca; Paulina, then a tween, recalls being so upset by the initial upheaval that she couldn’t eat for a week. But there was lots of work to be done, which meant heading back into the smoke.

"We would go with my mom to the market," Paulina recalls, "and basically buy everything that my dad needed, and would ship it in boxes to Tijuana. My father would drive from Los Angeles to Tijuana to pick it up. He basically was a door-to-door salesman, but instead of selling encyclopedias or vacuums, he was selling mole or tlayudas."

On Cinco de Mayo in 1994, after a year of that hustle, Fernando opened a Oaxacan restaurant in an Eighth Street space in L.A.’s Koreatown that was so tiny it barely fit three tables but would grow into a culinary and cultural institution and a staple of "best of" lists. He named it Guelaguetza — a Zapotec word that, to his daughter Bricia, is so rich with meaning that it takes her nearly 300 English words (including: "… so then you give me a goat, or you come help make mole ") to explain. The term is part social construct, the name for a semiformal system of reciprocal generosity in which members of a collaborative community exchange labor and goods. It is part celebration, the name of an annual Oaxacan festival highlighting the region’s music, dance, art, and, of course, food. And for the Lopez children, who immigrated with their mother to Los Angeles to join Fernando Sr. two months after Guelaguetza opened, and whose stewardship of the restaurant has since allowed their parents to retire back in Mexico, the word is also part guiding concept not only for their restaurant — but for their lives.

"We love this city so much," Bricia says. "We love this country so much, and this is the least we can give. We can give back part of our culture. We can give back our food. We can give back our traditions. It’s our guelaguetza to Los Angeles. So when people ask me that, I’m like, ‘Oh man, there is so much there in that definition.’"

(Dean Cechvala)
(Dean Cechvala)

If the definition of Guelaguetza seems layered and nuanced, it’s nothing compared with the food that the restaurant serves. Everything is as relentlessly Oaxacan authentic as possible, from the beans — which are cooked in avocado leaves, just as they were back in the markets — to the to the fried cactus dish nopal Zapoteco. The tortillas used as the base of the tlayudas are imported from Oaxaca because, in much the same way that New York pizza is New York pizza because of the holy water, or Champagne is Champagne because of its precise provenance, a real tlayuda must originate in Oaxaca. (Even celebrity chef Rick Bayless has said that he only recently started serving tlayudas in his Chicago restaurants because it took him so long to figure out how to reliably import Oaxacan tortillas.) Jonathan Gold, who first wrote about the restaurant a few months after it opened, says that the Lopez family has long served as a sort of collective Oaxacan ambassador. "When the mayor of Oaxaca comes to town," says Gold, speaking by phone from an airport before a foodie trip to Copenhagen, "he goes to Guelaguetza."

And then there’s the mole, six different kinds of it, each one a carefully calibrated blend of ingredients ranging from chilies to chocolate. "It’s everything from plantains, to bread, to nuts, seeds," says Fernando Jr., describing what goes into mole, the traditional sauce usually made with the help of many people and as many as 30 different ingredients. "Different chilies — and every chili is different, so you have to roast them all differently to each individual point, and then you have to grind it all together, and the grinding is a very important thing because if you over-grind it it burns and that changes the flavor; if you under-grind the consistency isn’t there. Broth, tomatoes, almonds, onion …"

"I fell into a vat of mole at my baptism," Bricia says.

"Moles remind me of my grandmother," says Paulina. "My grandmother was a widow, so she would always take me to parties with her. … In Oaxaca they give you so much food that they give you buckets so you could take the mole home with you. My grandma would make me carry the bucket of mole."

(Dean Cechvala)
(Dean Cechvala)

Given the cavernous scale of Guelaguetza’s current space, a big corner building on Olympic Boulevard in Koreatown that can seat as many as 300 — a far cry from the teensy original location a few blocks away — even buckets and vat-sized portions of mole are barely enough. The restaurant bustles with activity and is an ideal place for families: The bright floral Mexican oilcloth tabletops are easy to wipe down, and the festive music drowns out the shrieks of wild children, and no one bats an eye if you eat with your fingers.

Such inviting chaos is a natural extension of the Lopez family itself. Like the children who dine in Guelaguetza, the siblings who own it are seemingly unable to sit still, always on to something new. Their office is as colorful as their restaurant, an explosion of framed mezcal labels, potty-training guidebooks, and the fancy microphones that Bricia and Paulina, both mothers, use to record their weekly real-talk parenting podcast, Super Mamás.

Not every venture they’ve tried has been a success; in 2011, the Lopezes shuttered a sandwich shop called Pal Cabron, which had been housed in the original Guelaguetza space, and a juice bar next door to focus on the flagship Olympic Boulevard location. But they continue to advocate for their homeland in new ways, selling canned mole paste that they hope home cooks, with the help of Bricia’s recipe blog, might incorporate into their pantry as a staple. Realizing that customers were constantly begging them for some of their michelada drink mix to take home — they’d fill old tequila bottles with the stuff and sell it ad hoc — they now package and sell that, too, under the I Love Micheladas label. And then there’s the #MicheMobil, a refurbished green 1969 Volkswagen bus tricked out with beer taps and a DJ booth that can be rented for parties or parked in beer gardens. Recently, the bus was on hand for a Tommy Hilfiger fashion show.

(Dean Cechvala)
(Dean Cechvala)

Early on, though, there were none of these fun projects; there was only the little restaurant. Sometimes when the Lopez kids got unruly, Fernando Sr. would issue a threat. "‘If you guys don’t behave,’" Paulina remembers him saying, "‘we’re going to go live by the restaurant.’" (The family lived in Mid-City and sat in daily traffic to bring the kids to and from school in Pacific Palisades.) "And we were like, ‘Dad, noooo, we don’t want to live there!’" she says, imitating the universal whine of the maligned teen. (On the Super Mamás podcast, she is equally adept at imitating her two daughters.)

Although Koreatown had a burgeoning Latino population when Fernando Sr. arrived, it was not an easy place to set up shop in early-’90s LA. Once a grand locale lined with art deco apartment buildings and featuring the Ambassador Hotel — which hosted the Oscars for a few years in the 1930s, was the site of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, and was razed in 2005 — it was hit hard during the 1992 L.A. riots, damaged by looting and fires. Rival gangs like 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha battled over blocks of territory. Paulina remembers that for a time, she wasn’t supposed to walk from the car to the restaurant without accompaniment, and that one time she watched a documentary about gang violence and Guelaguetza could be spotted in the background during certain scenes. Still, the neighborhood had an industriousness and diversity that it maintains to this day.

When Gold first heard about this Koreatown hole-in-the-wall restaurant serving horchata and chorizo, he figured it would be right up his alley: He often sought out unusual, off-the-beaten-path fare for his L.A. Times reviews, while his colleague Ruth Reichl, who would later become the editor-in-chief at Gourmet magazine, "reviewed the expense-account places," he recalls. "It was one of those things I like so much about L.A.," he says. "You open a door in a neighborhood you hadn’t thought about much, and suddenly you’re down the rabbit hole." He remembers noticing, on his repeated visits, the Lopez children sitting in the corner of the restaurant, finishing their homework.

These days, it’s easy to find options for global-local food, but when Guelaguetza opened, American understanding of and exposure to Mexican cuisine was heavily dominated by tacos and burritos, not tamales and mole. The very first issue of Saveur magazine — described by The New York Times as "a lush new magazine for people with sophisticated tastes in food" — contained a cover story by Peggy Knickerbocker about Oaxacan cuisine. Knickerbocker’s 1994 article was an early example of food writers’ fascination with the region at that time, detailing a journey to Oaxaca and outlining the process behind making mole in its various forms.

As Gold would point out in his review, though, even for those who had tried mole before, there was something different about Guelaguetza’s. Its mole negro is, he wrote, "so much better than other moles locally available — including the fine one at that Oaxacan restaurant in Santa Monica — that it is almost like seeing a Diego Rivera mural up close for the first time after years of seeing nothing but reproductions."

Gold’s review put Guelaguetza on the map; in City of Gold, a documentary about the food critic that features some of his favorite Los Angeles restaurants, there’s a segment featuring Bricia, who remembers that after Gold reviewed Guelaguetza, "One day my dad walked in and says, ‘Where did all these white people come from?’"

Over the years, the neighborhood Guelaguetza calls home has changed as well. Paulina, who could once be scared straight by the prospect of having to move to Koreatown, now lives five minutes from the restaurant. "Now it’s like, damn, it’s so expensive to live around here!" she says, laughing. The more everything has changed, though, the more fiercely the Lopez family has ensured that the food remains the same.

(Dean Cechvala)
(Dean Cechvala)

The exterior and interior of Guelaguetza are splashed with big murals by Lapiztola, a Oaxacan street art collective: There’s a girl holding corn; a boy with a chicken; an old mezcalero. ("All the wrinkles in his eyes and his face are all the labor that goes into making mezcal," Fernando Jr. told the Larchmont Ledger last year.) In 2011, Bricia created a mezcal bar inside the restaurant, cementing her reputation as, The New Yorker would put it, "the mezcal queen of Los Angeles." And just like the food served at Guelaguetza, the drinks have a special nuance, and an important family history.

"My father was a mezcal maker," Bricia says, "and my grandpa was a mezcal maker. Several of my uncles are mezcal makers; several of my friends are mezcal makers. I got drunk off mezcal for the first time when I was 7 years old. It was in Mexico, though, so no shame to my parents. That’s the way you do in Oaxaca!"

Mezcal purists — there are many out there, including Bricia — feel that the product, which is derived from agave plants that often grow for a decade, sometimes even two, before being roasted for days in underground pits, doesn’t need to be aged in barrels the way tequila is. The long, slow natural process does enough on its own. Bricia speaks about the process in soulful, almost mystical terms.

"The agave plant is female," she says. "It has reproductive parts, it has children. The liquor gets aged in the plant that’s been growing through different seasons, through different weather, through different people walking by, you know, and being able to be a part of people’s conversations. The plant is seeing kids grow up around it. And all those feelings go inside, and that’s what gives mezcal the deep flavor it has."

In late February, Bricia hosted a mezcal tasting at Guelaguetza in honor of a friend of hers, Wendy Carrillo, who came to the U.S. from El Salvador as a child and is now an American citizen with plans to run for Congress. (Like Carrillo, the Lopez children have all gained American citizenship. Bricia celebrated hers with a 2009 feast at Guelaguetza, and Paulina, the last of the siblings to take the oath of citizenship, voted in her first election this fall.) The event wasn’t the first time Bricia has used her position of relative visibility to signal-boost for another person or cause; in recent years, she sat on a Los Angeles planning commission and was invited to the White House for a gathering with President Obama about issues related to immigration and economic development. (The founders of AOL and Chobani Yogurt were among the other leaders invited.)

And in mid-February, Guelaguetza announced that it would be closed for the Day Without Immigrants demonstrations. "As the products of hard-working Oaxacan immigrants," read a message on the restaurant’s Facebook page, "we will stand in solidarity with the entirety of the immigrant population of the US." The siblings’ experiences adjusting to life in the U.S. aren’t uniform; Bricia has written about her early struggles to fit in as a 10-year-old in her ESL class, whereas Elizabeth, who was just 1 when the family moved to L.A., has never known anything but life in this city. But despite not having the memories of smoke-filled markets in Oaxaca that the rest of her family possesses, her pride in her heritage is just as strong. "It’s hard for even my own family to see me as an immigrant," Elizabeth says. "It’s hard for my friends, my coworkers, to see me as an immigrant. But I always say that I am, because I am proud. I never say I’m Mexican, I say I’m Oaxacan."

(Dean Cechvala)
(Dean Cechvala)

All of the Lopez children accompanied their mother and father to Chicago in 2015 for the James Beard Foundation Awards, the food world’s version of the Oscars. Guelaguetza was being honored one of the James Beard America’s Classics — a category designed to celebrate the sort of beloved local gems that may not constitute white-tablecloth fine dining, but still dish up the very best eats. Bayless presented the award to Fernando Sr., who went up onstage and delivered his acceptance speech in Spanish. "Viva Oaxaca!" he shouted. "He spoke from the heart," says Elizabeth, tearing up and trailing off. "That’s just who he is."

After the speech, people from celebrity chefs to the kitchen staff at the awards venue lined up to talk to Fernando Sr. "At the James Beard there’s a lot of writers and critics," says Fernando Jr. "But everyone who works in kitchens came up to my dad afterward and said how happy they were that he did it in Spanish." He laughs: "They thought it was a political act, but it’s just my dad — he doesn’t speak English."

At one point, Fernando Sr. operated five restaurants scattered around Los Angeles, but the late-aughts financial crisis precipitated the sale of several. ("We had expanded like we were Jack in the Box," Bricia told the L.A. Times in 2010. "We thought we could rule the world. But we didn’t.") Later, he was mulling letting go of the Olympic Boulevard location, too, until his children decided in 2014 to take over. The Oaxacan restaurant’s current reputation as an American culinary treasure is a big step up from the early days, when "everything was drudgery," Bricia says, and "there was no glam, there were no podcast interviews." When the Lopez family arrived in the U.S. in 1994, they delighted in the automatic windows on Fernando’s new Ford Explorer; gaped at the incomprehensible expanses of highway; stopped at McDonald’s — then went right to Guelaguetza to help Fernando close up for the day. "We didn’t come to this country to take," Paulina remembers her father saying to his children, always imploring them to work hard. The notion of guelaguetza, after all, is more about what you can give.

The Lopez children are proud that they’ve enabled their parents to retire and spend time back in Oaxaca, where by 2014 a restless Fernando Sr. had opened a small joint called Pink Burger. (The short-lived establishment served American-style patties, a reversal of the Oaxacan food he brought to L.A.) Paulina says she is glad that her parents can finally "enjoy life." Or at least they can try — when asked how their parents do that, the Lopez siblings look at each other and laugh. "They work," several voices say at once. "And they worry," Bricia says, to nods all around. "They worry a lot," adds Elizabeth. "Like, a lot. It’s like, Dad, chill out."

Compared with the year that the family spent separated by a border in the ’90s before Guelaguetza was born, it’s not currently quite as difficult to be apart. Back then, international phone rates made talking to their father a luxury; these days, Paulina’s two daughters and Bricia’s son can easily say hi to their abuelos via FaceTime. But just like those early days, it’s hard to tear Fernando Sr. away from the business he built and the efforts he gave to Los Angeles and the U.S. Whenever he returns to visit, his kids beg him to sightsee and relax, maybe hit up the beach. "‘What am I going to do at the beach?’" laughs Elizabeth, imitating her father. "I’m like, relax? Go read a book? ‘OK, maybe,’ he says."

Instead, he always goes straight to the restaurant.

An earlier version of this piece misstated what neighborhood the Lopez siblings grew up in; they lived in Los Angeles’s Mid-City, not in Pacific Palisades. (They went to school in the Palisades.)

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