“Dave” he asked, “what food do you miss most when you are not in Oaxaca?”
We were sitting in the Restaurante Guelaguetza in Los Angeles and the person asking me the question had never experienced Oaxaca food. He was of Mexican descent, having grown up in El Centro, literally across the border from Mexicali. His food life was one of carne asada and tacos, a staple of the northern Baja California region of Mexico.
I thought about that question hard, and then said tlayudas. But almost before I finished the word, I was thinking about quesillo, chiles de agua, mole, mezcal, and a thousand other of my favorites from that southern state. Soon, words like terroir, maguey and maiz we’re flying across our group of 8 seated at a back table.
It’s like that for me whenever I visit the now famous Los Angeles institution and mecca of Oaxacan food, Guelaguetza, located essentially in Koreatown at the corner of Olympic and Normandie in the heart of Los Angeles. I never go alone and I always try to take a novato, or rookie or two with me. Because I want people to understand that as good as those carne asada tacos are in Baja, and believe me, they are, Mexican food is about so much more.
It wasn’t always like that.
Years ago when I first started visiting and working in Oaxaca, I heard about this place in Los Angeles with the hard to pronounce name, Guelaguetza. The first time I went, my wife and I visited with another couple. We were the only gringos in the house that night and were we popular. People from across the restaurant were coming up and asking us how we knew about the place. When we said we had visited Oaxaca, we were treated like royalty, or more accurately, family.
That is what Restaurante Guelaguetza is… family. More than the food, it’s that place you come home to, and increasingly for me, that place is Oaxaca. The aromas, the foods, the buzz, the… there’s just that something. I call it the spirit of Oaxaca. If you’ve ever been to Oaxaca, you know what I am talking about. It’s the spirit of Guelaguetza, the festival and attitude that defines the state and is the namesake of Bricia and Fernando Lopez’ wonderful restaurant.
I come to know the family, visiting with them many times not just in Los Angeles, but Oaxaca as well. I’ve introduced my entire family, many friends to the wonderful food there and have even done a banquet at Guelaguetza for my foundation to raise money for our work in Oaxaca.
Over the years, Bricia, Fernando and in reality, everyone at Guelaguetza have won many awards for their restaurant, most recently the prestigious James Beard Foundation America’s Classic Award. Underneath it all though, they still retain the pride and humility of the Oaxaca people. It’s something you’ll experience if you are ever lucky enough to find yourself sitting in their wonderful restaurant in the heart of Los Angeles.