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Bricia Lopez is Bringing Family and Culture to the Table

Cocinera, author and Guelaguetza extraordinaire Bricia Lopez talks, food, family and cultre.

Bricia Lopez doesn’t have much of a hook shot.

The woman who has helped grow one of the most popular dining destinations in Los Angeles will tell you that she never had the opportunity to play sports. But she can cook you something that will transport you back to your childhood. It’s the kind of skill that comes with being born into a family that loves food and is raised close to the bustle of a restaurant’s kitchen.

Anything good in life comes in layers. It could be the spices of a mole comingling on the plate, bringing together not just the dish but a memory you may have had as a child.

It could be the savory unctuous quality of a good michelada, marrying together with the tang of a summer beer and the spice of the mix.

Or maybe it’s the family restaurant, built on the bedrock of hard work and continued with the complement of siblings who love to share in the endeavor of food and culture.

Bricia Lopez is easy to talk to, the kind of person who shares her interests like food one might place in front of you at their house. 

Lopez, the proprietor of renowned Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza, was nice enough to stop by the En Fuego House recently and share a great many things. There was pouring of micheladas, a discussion about the best places to eat in Los Angeles, a snapshot of the best beers, and what it’s like to be a mom.

Snapshots of a vibrant life. It’s all any of us get in brief conversations. But Lopez is that rare person who makes you feel like a fast friend.

She had recently returned to L.A. from a visit to Oaxaca, her birthplace and a location she loves to visit for not only the family that still lives there but for its regenerative qualities.

“There's just something about being in the space that really reignites me, both spiritually, creatively,” Lopez tells En Fuego. “I feel like a lot more in peace after I come back from Oaxaca.”

Lopez’s mother and father now live in Mexico. It’s her home away from the one she has made here in Southern California, a place she moved to with her family when she was 10.

“I don't remember a day where I didn't love food,” Lopez said while preparing elotes. “I was blessed to grow up in a home where my mom made home-cooked meals for me almost every single day of my life growing up. So, up until I was probably 10 or 11, I had a homemade meal almost every single day, which is pretty unheard of.”

Family Business

What’s also unheard of is the kind of collective effort it takes to build a brand like the one that has grown from Guelaguetza’s doors. The family sells its signature mole from its online store.

Lopez has seen their family recipe of michelada mix find its way onto Costco shelves. She also co-hosts a popular parenting podcast with her sister Paulina, and is the author of “Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico.”

Born in San Pablo Villa de Mitla, Mexico, Lopez came to the United States at 10. Her parents Fernando Lopez and Maria Monterrubio would then open Guelaguetza in 1994, a daunting enterprise that took not just the faith in building a restaurant but a work ethic instilled in the entire family.

There were a lot of struggles early on, she recalls. But they built upon the successes, like layering a complex recipe, seeing things through until the final flourish.

“I worked at the restaurant every single weekend through my early twenties,” she said. “I never had a weekend off, maybe a few here and there, very few family vacations. I don't know how to play any sports. I have zero coordination because we never had the time or resources.”

It was the family business first. The result of which, she admits, is that she’s one hell of a cook and waitress. She might not be able to sink a free throw, but she can carry ten plates and whip up something with a few ingredients that you will be telling friends about years later.

Much like the hard work and drive handed down by their parents, the children took over the restaurant and have moved it into the zeitgeist of L.A. dining.

“I have been running the businesses together as siblings,” she continued. “I love working with my family. It's like the biggest blessing of my life.”

There is a strong sense of belonging when you sit down at Guelaguetza. The hospitality is warm and the portions are huge, like a grandmother daring you to wipe clean your plate.

There is definitely an added ingredient to the moles churned out of the kitchen. They are thick with centuries of carefully curated trial and error.

Oaxacan food is complex and indigenous. Its true ingredients can only matriculate from the region. And Guelaguetza’s signature flavor profiles can only be had at this location. There’s perhaps a reason for that as the Lopez family looks to nearly 30 years in Los Angeles.

“For me, personally, family is everything,” she said. “I think that innately humans just love relationships and yearn for love and just community. And for me, I just happened to be so lucky that my community is my own family, my siblings.”

From Country to Table

Lopez is quick to point out that success is far-reaching. It extends into the kitchen and beyond, to the help she has in Oaxaca where much of her ingredients are sourced to ensure each dish is served with the necessary accoutrement of authenticity.

“It just goes beyond me; It's not just me or my sister or my brother,” she states. “Even beyond the three of us, there's a whole team in the kitchen and our catering team and our sourcing team in Oaxaca, there's a lot of moving parts that just works because all of us have the common interests of let's make sure we represent Oaxaca in the best possible way.”

There is an emphasis on the intention with everything Lopez does. Her beloved michelada mix I Love Micheladas is far more nuanced than other mixes, offering depth of flavor. It’s a family recipe that was kept behind the bar until a customer asked to buy the mix they used at Guelaguetza. She is adamant that a good michelada mix shouldn’t be tomato-forward. It shouldn’t be just a Bloody Mary mix masquerading along with your cerveza. It should have layers, savory notes along with a picoso punch.

“Oaxacan food is just really using endemic ingredients to the region, but also being able to layer flavors together, roasting a lot,” she explains.

“In Oaxaca, we use a lot of smoke, whether it's smoking our chilies to make or mole or smoking our agave to make mescal, smoking and roasting our tomatoes to make salsa. I think for us, really, the relationship we have with fire is very close to who we are as a people.”

Bringing that fire to the dish is just part of the ingredients. Because Lopez has every intention of ensuring that fire has the utmost respect for her culture and where this food originates.

Support System

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Lopez was raised to look at family as a remarkable support system. People who you can lean on in times of struggle but also embrace in times of joy.

Working in the restaurant from an early age, it was a given that you put in whatever hours you could. It’s that sentiment that spawned the “Super Mamas” podcast. It’s a show indicative of someone raised around constant help and support and the realization of what it takes to succeed.

“I think that the majority of people don't have help in this country, like the majority of moms have zero community around them and that sucks,” Lopez said. “I am in a very privileged position when I'm able to have a little bit of help.

“We just want an outlet where we can vent and just say how we feel and talk about it. Even just talk about that privilege that we have as this is the way that we do it with help. Like, how does everyone do it without help? And validate moms of their feelings and saying it's okay to not like your kid today, it’s totally fine. You're not a bad mom. And the advice for me is just. You know, every mom sucks.”

Parents have their struggles. And they come constantly, sometimes feeling like a torrential downpour. The show amplifies the fact that many don’t have that support system to weather that storm.

It’s a podcast where you can vent about the tribulations and revel in the joys that come with being a mom.

Her own mom had a wonderful way of showing her own love for the family. It’s something that has evolved into the Lopez family paying things forward by showcasing their culture, their food, and their unending hospitality.

“Having a mom that cooked so wonderfully every single day and that's really the way that she showed her love,” Lopez said. “I mean, I come from a very traditional Latino family where we have challenges expressing our love vocally. So, I think my mom really expressed her love with her hands by cooking the best she could for her family.”

When you leave Guelaguetza it’s unlike walking out of other restaurants. You leave knowing that every dish started long before you ordered. It began in a kitchen deep in the heart of Mexico.