There are tons of phenomenal Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles, but you might guess that one of the greatest is in Koreatown. It’s called Guelaguetza, and it was opened as a place for the Oaxacan community to find a taste of where they came from. Eventually the late, great restaurant critic Jonathan Gold called it “The best Oaxacan restaurant in the United States.” Bricia Lopez grew up in that restaurant, taking it over when her parents moved back to Mexico, and is bringing their love of their culture to a new generation. We wanted to talk with her about that decision, the dreams she put on hold when she decided to continue the family business, and the joy that her work brings.

Francis Lam: Can you tell us how your restaurant Guelaguetza got started?

Bricia Lopez: The restaurant was started by my father in 1994, so this year we turn 25, which is crazy to think. My dad migrated from Oaxaca in 1993, and in 1994 he opened up shop in a little place in Koreatown. It was a very small restaurant, and a few months after he opened, my mom, my siblings and I moved to L.A. and all of us started working in the restaurant all the time.

FL: Why did he open in Koreatown? L.A. is such a Mexican city.

BL: Koreatown in the early 1990s was very Mexican, with both a lot of Mexican community and a lot of Korean community.

FL: You said you’ve basically been working in the restaurant since you came to the United States 25 years ago.

BL: Yes, since I was nine years old.

FL: For people who grow up in that kind of place, did you know you wanted to take it over one day, or were you like, Oh my god, get me out of here!?

BL: Oh, no. I did not want to do anything to do with the restaurant. Believe it or not, I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be a news anchor. I wanted to be a radio host. I wanted to do everything but work in the restaurant because as a young girl I always saw the restaurant as something that was taking my family away from me in a sense – taking my parents’ time, taking joy from my childhood. I would get so angry. I didn’t get to go to a prom because I had to work. I couldn’t do sports after school. I hated it. I really did not like my time there as a high schooler. When college came – this is what’s funny – I couldn’t leave because something inside me didn’t want to leave my parents alone. I felt a responsibility of being part of the restaurant; I decided to go to a college locally and continue working in the restaurant.

Back then it was even more back of the house – accounting, administration. Because when you’re a daughter of immigrants, you’re not only their translator, but also their attorney and their accountant, because my parents couldn’t speak English. My older sister ran away and went back to Mexico for college, and then my brother went up north for college, and for a while it was just me and my parents. That’s when I learned to fall in love with the process and understood the bigger picture. It was really through college where I started seeing the restaurant as my career, but I was still fighting that calling, I would say.

FL: Was there then a moment where you knew you’d made the decision? Was there a moment where all of the sudden it was like, Yeah, I guess I grew up here and I’m going to stay here?

BL: The moment came when the recession hit, and my parents lost everything. They lost their house, they lost their cars, they lost all the other businesses they had. They were stripped down from everything. It was a very dark period in our family’s life. They said they wanted to sell everything off, pay all debts and leave this country forever. At that time, I was faced with this decision of either, my dad sells everything off and moves and I stay here because I’m not going to move to Mexico, and I have to get a job. And I think it was at that moment where it hit me like, I’m going to go get a job? No, I’m not! But not only am I not going to go get a job, but it was also this – I was put in front of this image of my parents with nothing, leaving without a legacy, leaving with all their years of sacrifice – like gone. And I just couldn’t imagine me being part of that story.

So, at that moment, my parents did move back to Mexico, and my siblings and I – my sister, my brother – we got together and formed a separate corporation. We drew up paperwork, and we said, "Okay, here’s what’s going to happen. We’re going to buy this business from you guys. Obviously, we don’t have money to pay, but we’ll do it as a promissory note and we’ll send monthly payments, so consider it your pension or consider it your retirement plan." In the beginning it was really difficult. There were days when we didn’t even have customers walk in. It was hard. It was a recession. People didn’t have any money to spend. But every day we would wake up and we would figure things out. We would tackle one problem at a time. And little by little, not only did the economy get better, but I think my siblings became better at what we were doing. We found a role for one another within the business, and then from there it was just momentum.

FL: What an incredible story. It feels great to be in there. It’s a great vibe, and your food is so delicious, like your moles are so complex. You can taste the different spices and the seeds and the chilies and the chocolate and the little bit of sweetness. But a great mole – you can’t really tell what’s in it.

BL: Right, yeah.

FL: It’s like this bottomless pit of flavor, and every time I’ve tasted your mole, I’m like, Oh god, it’s so good.

BL: Thank you. Well, you know, I think this is also another common mistake that people do when a restaurant is doing bad. The first thing they do is ask how can we lower our food costs, right? As opposed to looking at operational—

FL: Like what corners can you cut?

BL: Yeah. What corners can we cut? And for us it was more about what corners can we cut personally. I didn’t drive my car for a year. We were living in wherever we could find cheap rent. We just stopped taking money from the business, but we knew that one place where we needed to spend was to actually increase our food cost, so we could give people better quality food. We would go to Oaxaca and we would taste. We would go to the source and say, Okay, this is what it needs to taste like. And my father always told me, “It doesn’t matter if you know how to cook or not. It matters that you know what things are supposed to taste like. Because you can never fool someone who knows what things are supposed to taste like.”

FL: What does the restaurant’s name, Guelaguetza mean?

BL: It’s such a beautiful name. My dad named it. Guelaguetza is a tradition in Oaxaca that’s about receiving reciprocity, giving to one another, and just the act of giving back and receiving at the same time. It’s also a huge festival. I really encourage every single person to visit Oaxaca during the last two weeks of July. The only thing I can really compare it to would be Mardi Gras here in the U.S. It’s just food and drink and dance, and there’s a huge stadium that’s called the Guelaguetza Stadium, where there are dancers from all the communities in Oaxaca, and the communities come to the city to share their culture with the world, to give their Guelaguetza to the world in this stadium.

FL: Oh, cool.

BL: And today, for us, what Guelaguetza really means in our family and for everyone that works in the restaurant with us, is it’s our way of giving our culture to L.A., to give back to this wonderful city that we call home today.

FL: What a legacy. Thank you so much, Bricia.

BL: Oh, no, thank you.

Francis Lam
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.