Get the CON CALÓ Newsletter

Posted inCulture

CALÓ Q&A: FERNANDO LÓPEZ JR., Oaxacan heir, proprietor of LA’s award-winning restaurant La Guelaguetza

Photos by Teresa Puente

The Lopez family opened La Guelaguetza restaurant in Los Angeles in 1994 specializing in the cuisine of Oaxaca. The restaurant is named for a famous festival in Oaxaca that happens annually in late July also called La Guelaguetza.

It was founded by Fernando Lopez Sr. with his wife Maria de Jesus Monterrubio. The parents have since retired and moved back to Oaxaca.

Today, the restaurant is now run by their adult children. It is considered an L.A. institution and also has won many awards including a James Beard Foundation America’s Classics award and a Gold award, the latter given in honor of the late Jonathan Gold, the Los Angeles Times restaurant critic.

There are an estimated 350,000 indigenous Oaxacans in California and around half of them in Southern California. The Oaxacan community is the largest outside of Mexico and has been dubbed “Oaxacacalifornia.”

CALÓ NEWS recently interviewed Fernando Lopez Jr. while he was in Oaxaca City on a work and family trip.

Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

WHAT KEEPS BRINGING YOUR FAMILY BACK TO OAXACA?

Oaxacans have very deep roots to our food and culture. We moved to the U.S. in ‘94. When you’re far away we always miss the food. The food always comes with the memories and the memories come with the people. And we miss the food and the people.

My parents retired eight years ago. They love it here. My father says he can’t see himself going back to L.A. It’s a very tight knit community (in Oaxaca.)

WHAT DO YOUR SOURCE IN OAXACA?

We meet with vendors; we like to source things. We source all our chiles, our tlayudas, the spices, everything that gives the flavor. 

La Guelaguetza is more about traditional cooking and you can’t improve on tradition. 

We have other projects we’re working on. We’re fixing up the house we grew up in (Oaxaca City). We rebuilt it and when we have friends in they can stay at our house or anybody else, friends, family and the public, to bring over the Guelaguetza experience. It has a nice kitchen and they can buy their own ingredients and cook in the house. 

Before the pandemic I would be here six times a year. So far this year I’ve been here two times and I’ll probably come back two more times.

We’ve done nonprofit work here when there was a big earthquake in the Isthmus region (in 2017) We helped people rebuild houses.

HOW HAS THE PANDEMIC AFFECTED YOUR FAMILY BUSINESS?

We were fully closed for a week and then moved to take out. Guelaguetza the restaurant is an experience. It’s experiential dining. It’s about going there and eating the food. So our “to go” sales were never that high. 

When we started it was a restaurant for Oaxacans by Oaxacans. Now everybody goes there. We have the support of the community, I mean LA in general. We were able to do well enough to stay open.

We have online websites ilovemole.com and the michelada business, ilovemicheladas.com We sell mole, corn, beans, spices. During the pandemic we were able to mail out so people could cook more at home. We were able to feed people not just in LA but all over the country.

WHAT MAKES OAXACA SPECIAL?

Oaxaca is magical, spiritually. We have all the archaeological sites. We have very deep roots to our ancestors and those deep roots translate into deep traditions. We have the biggest biodiversity in birds, in plants. You can eat something different in Oaxaca every day for years and not have the same thing twice. You have the effect of apparent poverty. When you have poverty in a big city it’s different. When you are poor in Oaxaca you live off the land. Oaxaca is the second poorest state in Mexico. That doesn’t make weak people that makes strong people. They are very connected to the land and the earth, who learn to turn their surroundings into culture and to food.

DO YOU FEEL THE INDIGENOUS CULTURE UNITES PEOPLE IN OAXACA?

You have racism in Mexico. When you have racism and you have people who feel oppressed, they come together and they feel a sense of community that is stronger than somewhere else. 

When you go outside of Oaxaca, you’re just a Oaxaquito. You’re looked down upon and people think less of you. When people see it as a negative the response is to turn it into a positive and to feel a sense of pride. The history of Oaxaca is turning negatives into positives.

We are Zapoteco from the central valley. The roots are deep. My grandpa had the first TV in town not that long ago. My dad grew up from a LA point of view, it’s the 1500s.

WHAT ARE FIVE THINGS ONE SHOULD DO WHILE IN OAXACA?

It’s so hard to limit it to five things. 

Travel the state. Try to visit a mezcalería in a small town. Try to visit a small factory that makes barro rojo or barro negro (red or black clay pottery). Deal directly with the artisans, the people. Try to go on a hike and see how beautiful the state is. Yesterday we walked from Xaaga to Hierve el Agua. Go to Mitla and visit the archaeological site. Talk to the artisans who make linen. It’s a very textile based city. Go to the market at Tlacolula on a Sunday, the whole town turns into a marketplace. Have a taco de barbacoa. You can buy your meat and take it to the barbecues and they make your meat there. Get some fresh bread, hot chocolate.

HOW DOES THE ART CONNECT TO THE FOOD IN MEXICO?

There are multiple lanes of Oaxacan art. There’s the folk art, the traditional artisans who make alebrijes, (magical painted animals) the gourds you drink mezcal with intricate carvings, everything you can think of you can find a traditional folk art. Oaxacans like to bring art into everything. There’s the newer more modern art that’s more political. It stems from the youth that are frustrated with the lack of opportunity or the overall state of the Mexican economy in general. There is so much art about the fight the world is having with industrialized food production versus localized food production.

WHAT CAN YOU RECOMMEND IN MEZCAL?

There’s a saying: “El mejor mezcales que tengas enfrente de ti.” or “The best mezcal is in front of you.” Just try everything. There are so many places to do tastings. There’s a place called La Locura. There are others trying to preserve the mezcal and agave lineages. My dad goes to a guy on the side of the road and he just knows where to pull over for mezcal. Every restaurant you go to will have a giant mezcal list. Try different types of brands and varieties of agave. It’s very much like wine in general. It’s like saying when I go to Napa Valley which kind of wine should I try. It’s not just about trying a wine. It’s about the area, the types of wines and tasting the varieties from a lot of different people. You can try 20 espandines from 20 different brands. 

WHAT IS THE FUTURE FOR OAXACA?

I don’t want to say Oaxaca is a trend. Oaxaca is forever. Right now there is a lot of attention in Oaxaca. There are a lot of people discovering it for the first time. A lot of people are rediscovering it. There are a lot of people noticing how wide of an influence Oaxacan art, food and culture has had on Mexico and the worldwide culture. When you talk to some of the top chefs in the world, a lot of them will tell you how much they respect Oaxaca for its cuisine, the culture and the people.

Oaxaca is at the beginning of a sort of renaissance. People come to Oaxaca and what they are discovering is a part of themselves, a part of their own humanity. That is what Oaxaca is a place to come and feel human again, a place to come and feel like you’re with your family, your neighbor with your community.  That is what is at the heart of Oaxaca and what makes it great. It truly is a center of humanity.

Teresa Puente

Teresa Puente has spent her career reporting on immigration and Latino issues in the U.S. and has also reported extensively from Mexico. Previously, she was a staff reporter at the Chicago Tribune and...