The owners of Guelaguetza are like mole royalty in Los Angeles. But for them, mole isn’t just a sauce, it’s a way of preserving their Oaxacan culture through tried-and-true recipes that have been passed down for generations.
For over 20 years, the Lopez family has been offering a bevy of different mole sauces at their seminal restaurants, which are now down to one location inside a vibrant-orange, pagoda-topped building at the edge of Koreatown. It’s rare not to find a massive queue of eager diners spilling outside the eatery on the weekends. After all, Guelaguetza is known as one of the go-to spots for a taste of authentic Oaxacan mole, and in 2015, the restaurant was recognized for its achievements by snagging the coveted James Beard Foundation America’s Classics award. At Guelaguetza, customers will find six types of mole sauces — from the classic and chocolate-laced mole negro, to the jade-tinged and herbaceous mole verde, and the more savory mole amarillo — smothered over tlayudas, tamales and meats.
“What differentiates our mole from other places is the fact that one: we make everything from scratch; and two: the chiles and a lot of the ingredients are actually from Oaxaca,” Bricia Lopez, co-owner of Guelaguetza says. “I think it gives it that special flavor that people grew up with. And we’ve been using the same recipe for years. I think people who were brought up with mole, they have it in a special place in their hearts.”
The recipe for their famous mole negro comes from Bricia Lopez’s mother, Maria Monterrubio, who learned how to create the complex and savory sauce at a young age. In small towns in Oaxaca, families will make massive amounts of the labor-intensive mole negro for major celebrations like weddings and Christmas. Bricia Lopez fondly recalls that on the day of her baptism, she fell into a steel tub full of mole while donning a white dress. “It was probably an omen with my life,” she jokes. “I was christened by mole at three years old.”
In a way, mole courses through the veins of Oaxacans. “Every family has their own mole recipe,” Bricia Lopez says. “I’m not going to say it’s something you’re born with, but especially if you live in a little town like where my dad lives, his family made mole, my mom’s family made mole.”
When Bricia Lopez’s father, Fernando Lopez, Sr., emigrated from Oaxaca in 1993, he brought his family’s mole recipes along with him to L.A. His wife and children stayed behind in Mexico while he spent the next year selling Oaxacan food products door to door. When he finally opened Guelaguetza in 1994, he brought his family to L.A. to live and work with him.
Fernando Lopez, Sr. wanted to serve authentic dishes tailored to the people who were from Oaxaca. At the time, diners weren’t as adventurous in trying out dishes from other cultures, and many warned him that he was making a big mistake by not slinging tacos and burritos, which were more commonplace in L.A. at the time. When people from Oaxaca began showing up to his restaurant and giving positive feedback, “he knew he had something bigger,” Bricia Lopez says. For her father, if these customers, who knew what Oaxacan food was supposed to taste like, enjoyed his food, then he knew that meant everyone else would also love it.
Guelaguetza was one of the first restaurants in L.A. to feature Oaxacan dishes — and that meant a lot to immigrants who missed flavors from home. “I think if you ask anyone from Oaxaca, mole plays a big role in their lives; it’s more of a celebratory dish,” Bricia Lopez says. “To be away from that when you move to a foreign country, it’s really hard on someone. When my dad brought mole to L.A., it was almost like he brought a little piece of Oaxaca with him.”
Four years ago, Fernando Lopez, Sr. and Maria Monterrubio retired and moved back to Oaxaca, leaving their children — Paulina, Fernando Jr., and Bricia Lopez — in charge of the family business. Now that Bricia Lopez has a son of her own, it means even more to her now than ever to keep the familial traditions of Oaxacan food alive and kicking.
“I hope that [my son’s future] kids — my grandkids — learn about it because it’s really important to preserve someone’s history and really cherish it and value it,” she says. “Because that’s something that can't be taken from us. Our history belongs to us. It’s something that should be really treasured.”