Call it the summer of Bricia Lopez. There she was at the L.A. Street Food Fest serving up her mom’s Oaxacan tamales and mini-cemitas. There she was at Guelaguetza during the World Cup, pouring shots of mezcal and passing ‘round the micheladas. After last weekend’s Korean BBQ Cook-Off in Koreatown, she plied a crowd with arroz con leche and cinnamon-tinged coffee.
You’re bound to bump into her at an underground dinner, the latest restaurant, or at any of the bars where she has inspired bartenders to name cocktails after her, from the “Sweet Bricia” at 320 Main in Seal Beach to the “Brisa de Oaxaca” at La Descarga in Hollywood.
So who is Bricia Lopez? If you run with a certain crowd of culinary fans, then you might already know Bricia and her younger brother, Fernando. He’s a charmer too. “Don’t dance with me, or you’ll fall in love,” he recently was overheard teasing a woman at the downtown bar Las Perlas (where there happens to be a cocktail called, simply, “the Bricia”).
They’re the scions of the family that owns the Guelaguetza restaurant empire, built over 17 years on the ambitions of an immigrant patriarch and the deft spicing of his wife’s Oaxacan moles.
And now the daughter-and-son duo are reinvigorating the family business with all the fervent vision of the young and tapped-in.
Bricia, 25, and Fernando, who just turned 23, opened Cemitas y Clayudas Pal Cabron last year in Huntington Park, their brash celebration of fat Puebla-style sandwiches and those Oaxacan disks of thin tortillas as big as stop signs, smeared with beans, string cheese and meat. The restaurant’s name (too indelicate to translate) evoked a few early complaints, but bloggers, critics and diners were won over by the decor -- flashy murals of the namesake mullet-sporting hombre and his supporting cast of busty ladies -- as much as the sandwiches. Not to mention the charisma of Bricia and Fernando, who are proponents of all things Oaxacan (in Bricia’s case, maybe especially mezcal).
Last month they debuted NaturaBar, a juice bar next to the original Guelaguetza on 8th Street -- a rainbow store of licuados (smoothies), raspados (shaved ice) and family-recipe ice creams such as flor de pina (pineapple blossom) and leche quemada (burnt milk).
And they’re the new faces of the Guelaguetza restaurants (there are currently three), helping to turn the business around after a couple of rocky years. Restaurant sales were down so much last year that Bricia says, “It was catastrophic.” The family sold a cheese factory outside of Fresno, which was producing Oaxacan quesillo, and a money-wire service. “We had expanded like we were Jack in the Box.... We thought we could rule the world,” she says. “But we didn’t.”
Sometimes, it’s almost hard to believe that they can’t. By the time Bricia, who has a degree in business from Mount St. Mary’s College, was 22 she had started an import division of South Gate-based Guelaguetza Food Products, where her mom, Maria, oversees the production of moles and a variety of meats -- such as the cesina (marinated pork), tasajo (salted, sliced beef) and chorizo. The import business, Surtex Foods, now brings in 5,000 tlayudas (tortillas) and 1,700 pounds of cheese a week from Mexico.
But Bricia has always been advanced. Born in Mitla in Oaxaca, she came out of the womb with two front teeth. (No, she didn’t ask for a shot of mezcal.) “Everybody in my town freaked out,” she says. And she has energy to spare. Describing herself, she says: “You know that girl you see in her car singing as loud as she can and you want to tell her, ‘Stop it, we can see you’? Well, that girl is me.”
Fernando, who graduated last year with an economics degree from UC Santa Cruz, might come across as slightly more shy, inclined to read books such as “Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value,” but he’s just as hospitable. Stop by Natura on any given afternoon and he’s probably there to scoop up one of his favorite combinations of ice cream for you -- limon with leche quemada, but the ratio has to be more leche quemada than limon, he says.
It helps that they are well connected -- with bloggers, chefs, bartenders, other restaurateurs -- mostly because they’re just interested. “Food, drink, art, sports, these are the things that bring people together,” Bricia says. And when she brings people together, she really brings people together. She bought a 150-inch TV screen for the huge Guelaguetza on Olympic Boulevard in Koreatown, and legions of soccer fans -- including chef Ludovic Lefebvre and LA Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold -- and six TV stations showed up for the World Cup games.
To think that their father -- Fernando Lopez Mateos, who opened the first Guelaguetza in 1994 -- had said airing the World Cup was a bad idea. “He didn’t think anyone would come,” Bricia says.
Lopez Mateos, 50, still has his hand in the business, spending most days at the South Gate office, but he says his role has diminished. “The marketing is changing, you need younger people.” Maria, 46, continues to work at the central kitchen there, preparing meats and sauces for all the restaurants as well as her line of prepared foods. “That’s my responsibility. If it’s not good, then who would come to Guelaguetza?” she says.
Last year was especially tough when Lopez Mateos decided to close the Guelaguetza in Huntington Park in the spring. “The economy had changed,” he says. “It wasn’t doing as well as the one in Plaza Mexico” in Lynwood.
That’s when something in Bricia clicked. “It was like a blow to my ego,” she says. “I was having anxiety attacks and thought, ‘I can’t let this happen.’ ” So she and Fernando came up with the idea to turn the Huntington Park location into the cemitas and clayudas shop -- the name and character inspired by an uncle who used to rock “a Jheri-curl mullet, an earring, the whole thing,” Fernando says.
Management of that restaurant and the Guelaguetza on Olympic falls to Bricia; Fernando runs the 8th Street Guelaguetza and NaturaBar. One of their cousins helps run the Guelaguetza at Plaza Mexico.
The most marked changes might be happening at the Olympic Guelaguetza. The 20-page menu that includes Maria’s inkiest moles and Oaxacan tamales remains much the same as before, but the live mariachi has been scaled back, and in its place are movie nights featuring Mexican films and dance performances by Grupo Folklorico la Nueva Antequera. And Bricia plans to make the 300-seat space more intimate by sectioning off parts of the restaurant, adding a display of her beloved mezcal and persuading her mom to do an occasional tasting menu from an open kitchen area in the middle of the dining room that doesn’t get much use otherwise.
Looking to the future, she says she’s learned from the past.
“It used to be that we were all here at the restaurant -- my mom and dad in the kitchen, I was at the front, my sister was cashier, my brother pouring water,” says Bricia, sitting at a table over a plate of her mom’s nicuatole, a delicate, prickly-pear-tinged block of masa pudding. “We weren’t just half the staff, we were the ambience. But when everything was good, you get pulled away.
“Even if this place was totally packed, I would still be here,” Bricia says. “I would be here.”
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Where to find them
* Olympic Boulevard, 3014 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 427-0608.
* 8th Street, 3337 1/2 W. 8th St., Los Angeles; (213) 427-0601.
* Plaza Mexico, 11215 Long Beach Blvd., No. 1010, Lynwood; (310) 884-9234; www.guelaguetzarestaurante.com.
Cemitas y Clayudas Pal Cabron, 2560 E. Gage Ave., Huntington Park; (323) 277-9899; www.lascabronas.com.
NaturaBar, 3335 1/4 W. 8th St., Los Angeles; (213) 427-0601; www.facebook.com/naturabar.