It's hard for Bricia Lopez to keep from choking up when she talks about Guelaguetza, her family's landmark Oaxacan restaurant in Koreatown, being selected as one of the James Beard Foundation's America's Classics this year.
"I knew about this early on, but I couldn't say anything, but I'm finally able to tell people, and I've been calling and talking and crying all morning," Lopez says.
"It's just an overwhelming feeling of happiness. My dad has worked so hard. I'm starting to cry again right now. I feel very honored, but it's really joy for my dad. He retired a couple of years ago, but his dream continues to live on.
"He came here with a dream and worked so hard and his dream didn't die. His biggest dream all those years was for the restaurant to go on for his children. I just feel this immense sense of pride for being able to carry on for my dad and my mom who worked so hard, so hard."
The America's Classics award is designed to honor regional restaurants that, as the foundation says, are "distinguished by their timeless appeal, they serve quality food that reflects the character of their communities."
Also selected this year are Archie's Waeside in Le Mars, Iowa; the Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, Ky.; Sally Bell's Kitchen in Richmond, Va.; and Sevilla Restaurant in New York City. The awards will be presented at the Beard Foundation's annual extravaganza May 4 in Chicago.
In the foundation's citation, Guelaguetza is praised for being "the center of Oaxacan life in Los Angeles, and the setting for countless quinceañeras, weddings, and anniversaries. A sprawling restaurant located in Koreatown, it features live music on a bandstand every night. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the restaurant draws both homesick Oaxacans and outlanders in search of honest Oaxacan foods.
"Bricia Lopez, one of the four children of Fernando Lopez and Maria de Jesus, now runs the restaurant along with her brother, Fernando Lopez Jr., and her sister Paulina Lopez," the Beard Foundation said. "They have added a mezcal bar and often bring in top producers from Mexico for seminars. The real star, however, remains the soulful Oaxacan food, including enfrijolados, tamales steamed in banana leaves with mole, bowls of goat stew, and big rounds of tlayudas, baked corn tortillas topped with semi-dried beef, Oaxacan cheese, and sometimes even grasshoppers."
The restaurant opened in a little storefront on 8th Street in 1994 – Fernando Lopez had been a street vendor for a year before that – and was an immediate success.
In reviewing the restaurant then, Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold wrote: "At Guelaguetza you'll find the sort of Oaxacan dishes you've only read about in travel magazines, the dense, banana-leaf wrapped tamales filled with pungent mole, the unstuffed enchiladas sprinkled with cheese and bathed in a musky, red chile sauce …"
Now relocated a few blocks away in Koreatown, the restaurant has been a mainstay on his best restaurant lists ever since.
Lopez says her father, who retired to the little town of Mitla in Oaxaca two years ago, hasn't quite grasped the importance of the award. "I told him, 'Dad, it's like if you were an actor and you won an Oscar, that's how big it is.' But he still doesn't really understand."
But Bricia, who runs the restaurant with her brother Fernando Jr., certainly does. She's expecting her first child on April 4 -- and the Beard Awards will be May 4.
"I told it, 'Baby, you can't be late,'" she says. "I have to be free on May 4th and I'll only have 30 days to lose my baby weight."
Guelaguetza, 3014 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 427-0608, ilovemole.com