HOW L.A. OAXACAN RESTAURANT GUELAGUETZA BECAME AN AMERICAN CLASSIC
Thanksgiving spans two delicious cultures for this family.
By ANDY WANG
“Thanksgiving is why I learned how to cook American,” says Maria Monterrubio, matriarch of the family behind Guelaguetza in Los Angeles. Guelaguetza is a fiercely Oaxacan restaurant, an institution that makes its wondrous moles and tlayudas with imported ingredients. But Maria also understands what it means to have an American family that embraces Thanksgiving.
During the years when she constantly worked at Guelaguetza, Thanksgiving was a rare day where she didnʼt have to be at the restaurant from 6 a.m. until 1 a.m.. It was a day where she could relax with her family and celebrate two different cultures with a Mexican-American feast.
Around 18 or 19 years ago, Monterrubio went to the store, found a recipe in a magazine and learned how to make a Thanksgiving turkey. She also riffed on Thanksgiving food by putting Oaxacan twists on side dishes. Year after year, her Thanksgiving meals have included chorizo-laden stuffing, refried beans, spicy mashed potatoes, pickled jalapenos straight from Oaxaca and creamy green spaghetti with roasted poblano peppers (a favorite of all her children) alongside the requisite Honeybaked ham, cranberry sauce and dinner rolls.
“My mom created these recipes out of her willingness to assimilate,” says Mariaʼs daughter, Bricia Lopez, who now runs Guelaguetza with her siblings Paulina, Fernando and Elizabeth. “To be able to have these recipes with me and know that I can make them for my family, thatʼs a beautiful thing. Thatʼs what Thanksgiving means to me.”
Whatʼs happened around the Thanksgiving table over the years has helped define this striving family. Yes, we are deeply Oaxacan, but we are also proudly American.
“Thanksgiving is the most Oaxacan holiday in America,” Fernando says. “All major Oaxacan celebrations are pretty much about getting together as a family and cooking a large meal.”
“Every tradition in Oaxaca is about being surrounded by food,” Bricia adds. “For Day of the Dead in my grandmaʼs house, mole was just flowing everywhere. In Oaxaca, we celebrate everything. We celebrate death, we celebrate life, we celebrate someoneʼs baptism, someoneʼs wedding. At the center of every celebration is food. Thatʼs where my love of food comes from. It was present every single step of my life.”
It wasnʼt just special occasions where great food was everywhere: Maria cooked big meals and made hand-squeezed agua frescas for her family every single day in Oaxaca.
The way the family sees it, thereʼs nothing more American and more L.A. than being proud of who you are and what your culture represents while also being curious about other cultures. Fernando and a friend, local food writer Javier Cabral, recently watched the Dodgers win Game 1 of the World Series while eating gamjatang in Koreatown on a scorching, 100-plus-degree day, and it?s hard to think of anything more L.A. than that.
Paulina smiles when she thinks about how she had grasshoppers in her school lunchbox.
“People remembered me in my yearbook as the chapulín girl,” says Paulina, who admits that she liked pizza day at school but otherwise preferred her momʼs food over what her classmates were eating.
Elizabeth remembers field trips when she would eat her momʼs tortas with cecina, avocado and refried beans.
“I was so proud of where I came from,” Elizabeth says. “I was like,‘Yeah, Iʼm eating a torta, you want some? Iʼm down to have a bite of yours and you can have a bite of mine.ʼ”
So Elizabeth would try bites of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and chicken fingers and go home thinking that her familyʼs food was still the best.
Tortas are a big tradition for the family on the day after Thanksgiving. Itʼs a totally American thing, of course, to make turkey sandwiches with leftovers. But Maria keeps things a little Oaxacan by crushing oregano and garlic in a molcajete. She puts the oregano and garlic over leftover turkey that she then re-crisps. Then her children happily assemble tortas with black beans, cranberry sauce and some pickled jalapenos.
“Itʼs the best sandwich, the best torta,” Maria says.
Maria and her husband, Fernando Lopez Sr., have retired and moved back to Oaxaca. They live in Mitla, Mariaʼs hometown, but they still go to Los Angeles for Thanksgiving every year. There are grandchildren to see now. Bricia has a 2-year-old son, Eduardo. Paulina has three daughters, 6-year-old Krista, 3-year-old Sabina and 1-month-old Sixta.
“One of my favorite things that happens at holidays including Thanksgiving is my father always shares new stories that we didnʼt know,” Paulina says. “As we get older, he opens up more. And now my kids are there and theyʼre able to hear it and be like, ‘Oh, Grandpa is this superhero guy.ʼ My children are going through this phase where they love Michael Jackson. My mom shared with them recently, ‘Oh, did you know your grandpa dances like that?ʼ”
As the grandchildren get older, theyʼll understand more about how their grandfather let loose but also about all that he had to overcome before giving his family a home in L.A. Theyʼll appreciate how their grandfather, who was orphaned when both his parents died of cancer, left Oaxaca for California in 1993 with nothing more than the dream of a better life for his family. At the time, Mexico was on the verge of a financial crisis, so he knew he had to move fast and earn U.S. dollars while the peso was being devalued. He left his wife and children behind with a promise that he would bring them over as soon as he could, and there wasnʼt a day he was away from them that he didnʼt think about this promise.
As the grandchildren get older, they might be awestruck about how their grandfather, a former mezcal maker who spoke no English when he immigrated and still speaks almost no English, started selling provisions door-to-door in L.A. before opening a food stand on a gritty street.
“He paid the cholos to protect him,” Bricia says. “A couple cholos were from Oaxaca and liked the food. Thatʼs why I love food so much. You can really change peopleʼs perceptions about anything with food.”
Fernando Sr. was becoming a street-food legend in L.A., but it wasnʼt an easy time for him.
“I remember him telling us there were days he would just break down because he missed us so much,” Fernando Jr. says. “We came to visit him once. We went to Sears and got a family photograph in the studio. He would say there were nights he would look at it and he would start crying.”
His desire to reunite with his family was all the motivation he needed to make the American Dream happen. He opened his first restaurant, the original Guelaguetza, in 1994. He had no menu. He had no prices in mind. Customers walked in, he asked what they would be willing to pay for certain items and went from there. A month later, he had become successful enough to get visas for his family and bring them over. Bricia remembers that she and her siblings came to L.A., with backpacks full of Oaxacan ingredients, and went straight to the restaurant.
“It was almost like an omen of what the rest of our lives would be,” she says.
Fernando Sr. would later find a larger space on Olympic Boulevard, where Guelaguetza continues to thrive in 2017. Securing the location in Koreatown involved Fernando Sr., who was unable to communicate in English, negotiating with a Korean building owner, who also spoke no English. Somehow, with translation help from the ownerʼs son and a Brazilian friend of Fernando Sr.ʼs who knew a little English, the deal got done.
This, all of his children say, has always been Fernando Sr.ʼs philosophy, his way of being: You just do things. You donʼt wait. You figure it out. You make it happen.
Guelaguetza has, for more than two decades, been one of L.A.ʼs most beloved restaurants, a transporting and festive place where families and friends gather for mole, mezcal and live music. After all this time, Guelaguetza remains steadfastly Oaxacan. The Lopez siblings and their children visit Oaxaca often to stay in touch with their roots. The family has started an earthquake-relief nonprofit organization that is building houses in Oaxaca. Bricia fantasizes about a future where she lives in Oaxaca part-time.
Recently, Paulinaʼs two eldest daughters spent three weeks in Oaxaca alone with their grandparents.
“Iʼm very lucky to have this connection back to Oaxaca, and I donʼt want my daughters to lose it,” Paulina says. “I send them to dual-immersion school because I want them to learn the language. I want them to learn about where they came from.”
Guelaguetza, which sells its mole online and has spawned the I Love Micheladas spinoff, is the best kind of American success story. Itʼs a reminder that you can come to this country with nothing and end up with everything.
So there Fernando Lopez Sr. was on stage at the James Beard Foundation Awards in 2015. “Viva Oaxaca,” he declared as he and Maria accepted an award that the organization gives to “our nationʼs beloved regional restaurants.” As always, this was a black-tie gala honoring the brightest shining stars of the culinary world. On this night, Dan Barber, Christina Tosi, Aaron Franklin and Mark Ladner all won awards. And there Fernando Sr. was too.
His children had explained to him more than once that this award was a huge deal, that it was like winning an Oscar or a Grammy. And Fernando Sr. sort of got it when they told him that, but he still didnʼt fully grasp the magnitude of the honor.
His children love this about him. As Fernando Jr. points out, his father was one of those immigrants who had always focused on survival, so it feels great to tell him his impact extends far beyond his own family. Plus, Elizabeth adds, itʼs nice to help your dad understand things, whether itʼs Airdrop, Instagram, Coachella or the significance of his lifeʼs work.
Bricia canʼt help but get choked up every time she talks about this award and what it represents. The name of the award? Americaʼs Classic.
“I think itʼs time that us as immigrants say, ‘Fuck yeah, Iʼm American,ʼ” Bricia says. “I may not look like what your perception of America is, but this is what America looks like. I want to bring that to the world. I want to say that Iʼm American. I want to change peopleʼs perceptions.”
And Bricia wants her father to know sheʼs thankful that heʼs given her and her siblings the opportunity to do so.
“I love Thanksgiving because it was the first American tradition we embraced,” she says. “Iʼm thankful that Iʼm here in Los Angeles. Today, there isnʼt a better place to live. Iʼm surrounded by diversity, by people who embrace my culture. Iʼm thankful that Iʼm able to express myself. I thank him for allowing me to live here.”