Bricia Lopez is a quintessential modern Angeleno: she’s a first generation immigrant who grew up in Los Angeles, a business owner, and a cultural ambassador who explores and experiences L.A. with the enthusiasm of a first-time visitor.
Lopez was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, and migrated to the United States with her family when she was 10 years old. Her parents, Fernando Lopez and Maria Monterrubio, opened the acclaimed Oaxacan restaurant, Guelaguetza, in 1994. Located in Koreatown near the intersection of Olympic Boulevard and Normandie Avenue, Guelaguetza is celebrating its 20th anniversary in August. The month-long festivities include friends visiting from Oaxaca to cook different menus, mezcal tastings, dancing, and more.
Mr. and Mrs. Lopez are now retired - Bricia is a partner in Guelaguetza and spearheads all operations alongside her siblings, Paulina and Fernando Jr. The Lopezes have become ambassadors of Oaxacan cuisine and culture, a role that has taken Bricia all the way to the White House, where she joined other business leaders in a recent roundtable discussion with President Obama about immigration and economic issues.
When asked what makes L.A. so special, Lopez says, “It’s really just the combination of everyone’s culture mixed into one place. It’s Koreans, Mexicans, Japanese, Ethiopian, White, Black. It’s everybody’s culture wrapped into one area that’s called Los Angeles. I think that’s why it’s called the City of Angels. I believe in angels and I believe in God. I think that when God thinks of angels it’s sort of a mix of people, because He creates everybody so different - some are short, some are tall, some are dark, some have straight hair, some have curly hair, some have green eyes, or blue eyes, or brown eyes. I think that’s why the city is so special, because we are all angels. Everybody has their own story and brings all that love into one place. That’s what we do, we have Guelaguetza."
Lopez continues, "A lot of people don’t know this - guelaguetza is a Zapotec word, and it has a lot of meaning. It’s tradition - let’s say you and I live in a little town in Oaxaca. And my daughter was getting married. So I’d go to you, you’re my neighbor. And I’d ask you to help me out with a couple of goats for the barbacoa. Then, when your son or daughter gets married, you come back to me, and you have a guelaguetza book - you wrote down that you gave Bricia two goats. So you come and ask for your guelaguetza, and I return it to you. It means 'to share,' 'reciprocity,' all that. It’s also a festival that happens the last two Mondays of July in Oaxaca. That’s when all the towns come down to the city and share their culture through dance and through food in this huge stadium."
In March 2013, Guelaguetza celebrated the grand opening of a mural created by Colectivo LaPiztola, a pair of Oaxacan muralists, on the restaurant’s orange façade along Olympic Boulevard. “We met them on one of our trips to Oaxaca,” says Lopez. “We really liked their art and what they stand for, so we flew them out here and we hosted them for about two weeks and worked on the mural together.” The mural features a young girl and boy in traditional Oaxacan clothes, and depicts a guelaguetza - the girl is offering corn to the boy, who is holding a chicken. “It represents that the chicken can’t live without the corn, and the girl is providing that for him,” explains Lopez. “He’s giving her something and she’s giving him something.”
“Guelaguetza, to us, is our way of giving back our culture to L.A. by our food, by art, by so many different things,” says Lopez. “Which is why we decided to make the mural outside [the restaurant] and give that to Los Angeles, because we love this city so much and we wanted to give something of us from our hearts. For what Oaxaca is, and for where we come from.”
When she has time off, Lopez loves to dine out, whether it’s at a new restaurant or an old favorite. “I love breakfast,” says Lopez. “I’m a morning person, I’m up pretty early, so breakfast is great. [Olympic Cafe] - House of Breakfast on Olympic is amazing. There’s a combination, it’s hash browns, two eggs - I always order my eggs over medium - and you can order your choice of hot links, bacon, steak, chicken or beef teriyaki. It’s so good. I always get the hot links or the teriyaki ribs. I order with a side of silver dollar pancakes, and I have five different salsas, it’s a whole production. For a little fancier brunch or breakfast, I like to go to the Ace Hotel [Downtown Los Angeles]. The avocado toast - everything they do there, you can’t really go wrong there.”
For dinner, Lopez likes Scopa Italian Roots (“always great”), Sotto, and Republique among many favorites. She gives a special shout out to chef Josef Centeno and Bäco Mercat, located in Downtown’s Old Bank district. “You can never go wrong with Bäco Mercat, whether it’s a brunch, a lunch, or a dinner. It’s one of my all-time favorite restaurants.”
A more recent discovery is The Stocking Frame, also in Downtown. “I’ve been going there a lot. The pastrami tacos are really bomb - there’s pork belly and octopus tacos, but make sure you ask for a lime and salt. I always put a little extra salt and lime on top of them, they’re just perfect. They’re so good!”
“There’s endless coffee shops, but I really like Café Demitasse,” says Lopez. “I find myself going there often, it’s a great little spot. You have Little Tokyo, you have Hama Sushi, you have Sushi Gen - I mean, you’re in L.A., you get everything!”
“I shop anywhere I go,” says Lopez. “If you do higher end shopping I definitely recommend either Abbot Kinney or Robertson [Boulevard]. If you’re staying on the Eastside and you want to do higher end, then you go to the Arts District [in Downtown], because there are so many little boutiques that have one-of-a-kind pieces. American Rag is always a favorite for me, there’s great shoe shopping for girls. There’s so many general stores, like Mohawk General Store in Silver Lake, it’s a great store."
If you’re seeking a shopping mall experience, Lopez recommends Westfield Century City Centre or the renovated Santa Monica Place, which she says “is completely different. I was just there last weekend, and that’s not what it was like when I was in high school, let me tell you.”
And for bargain hunters, Lopez says, “I know that there’s a lot of people that come from other countries that want to go outlet shopping. Citadel Outlets is money. You can spend three days in that thing and you wouldn’t be done."
Whether it’s the beach or the hills, Lopez makes the most of L.A.’s great weather. “I think one thing that L.A. doesn’t get enough credit for is how much outdoor space there is. I love to lay on the grass and get the sun, because it’s always sunny in L.A. I like going up to the Getty [Center], … you can just go and chill. Beautiful view, you can take a little picnic basket - or don’t - have lunch somewhere else and then go there. It’s just a great place to lay on the grass.”
“There’s so many places to go hike in L.A. I really like to hike Griffith [Park]. And they have that Trails Cafe, that’s great. Sometimes I actually cut my hike short because I just want to go back and have coffee and pastries,” she confesses with a laugh.
“I feel in L.A. you can create your own experience,” says Lopez. “People come here to visit - well, what kind of experience do you want to have? Do you want to have a beach experience and stay more on the Westside, there’s so many restaurants and so many things to do there. Or do you want more Hollywood, do the whole West Hollywood thing. You can’t really go wrong with any club in Hollywood. And then you can go to the SLS Hotel [at Beverly Hills] and stay there, it’s all hip and cool and you get great drinks. If you’re looking for more of an urban experience, definitely Koreatown, Downtown, the Arts District.”
She continues, “I think L.A. is like the world, but smaller. We have different states, we’re like the ‘country of Los Angeles.’ Koreatown is a state, Downtown is a state, Venice is a state. … Traveling is not that hard. Whether it’s Metro, whether it’s Uber, it’s not that difficult to explore the city, and you can’t stop. You can eat all the time, you can go hiking, great beaches, … we have everything. It’s what the world is going to look like in the future. If you look at L.A. and all the cultural diversity that’s happening here, this is what the rest of the United States is going to look like in ten years, or less.”
This August marks Lopez’s 20th year in Los Angeles. “I love the U.S. and I am in love with L.A. It’s my home, it’s where I grew up,” she says. “From the beach to East L.A., I think I grew up in a time - I’m very blessed - I’m able to travel those distances without any problem. Before, you couldn’t really do that. And now everything is so open, you can go hiking, you can go to the beach, and you can drive and go to a different country! There are so many things you can do by living in this area, and the weather is amazing, what is there not to like about L.A.?”
L.A. is a city of stories. Not just screenplays and novels. But real life stories that can only happen in L.A. A close encounter with dolphins. A brush with a celebrity. A cupcake from a vending machine. It could be an event, an exhibit, a song. But the moment it happens, you can’t wait to tell everyone back home about it. What's your L.A. story?