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And the winner of the 2021 Gold Award is ... Guelaguetza

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Guelaguetza, awash in orange paint, appears on Koreatown’s Olympic Boulevard like a burst of sunlight. Behind the restaurant, colorful umbrellas shade picnic tables set amid lush plants, which disguise the fact the space was a parking lot before the pandemic. Friends and families, happy to be together, snack on black bean-smeared tlayudas and sip chile-rimmed micheladas and horchata topped with bits of cantaloupe, walnuts and a splash of hot-pink syrup made from cactus fruit. Cumbia rhythms welcome new arrivals. It feels like walking into the vacation you’ve been yearning to take after all these months of staying home.

Back in 1994, Guelaguetza, in its original Eighth Street storefront, was one of Los Angeles’ few Oaxacan restaurants, and possibly the only one to specialize in Oaxacan cuisine. Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles didn’t tend to emphasize a single region then — they were mostly just Mexican.

Two women and a man sit on a stoop with plants
The Lopez siblings of the restaurant Guelaguetza, from left, Paulina Lopez Velazquez, Bricia Lopez Maytorena and Fernando Lopez on May 7.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“People laughed in his face,” says Fernando Lopez Jr. of his father’s notion to open an L.A. restaurant that was specifically Oaxacan. “They’d say, ‘You can do Oaxacan mole, but you gotta have mole and hamburgers or mole and tacos.’”

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Today, however, there are Oaxacan restaurants all over California. And Guelaguetza, founded 27 years ago by Fernando Lopez with Maria de Jesus Monterrubio and now run by their grown children, is an L.A. institution.

Guelaguetza is this year’s winner of the Gold Award, given to a local chef or restaurant “with the idea of honoring culinary excellence and expanding the notion of what Southern California cooking might be.” That’s how Jonathan Gold, my late husband and The Times restaurant critic until his 2018 death, described the prize he conceived in 2017.

Thanks to the Lopez family, the flavors of Oaxaca, especially complexly spiced moles in earthy shades of yellow, green, brick-red and richest black, are essential elements of Los Angeles cuisine. And Bricia Lopez, co-owner of Guelaguetza with her siblings Paula, Fernando and Elizabeth, has become a vital voice in the restaurant community. She’s the author (with Javier Cabral) of “Oaxaca: Home Cooking From the Heart of Mexico”; co-founder of the L.A. nonprofit Regarding Her, which formed in the middle of the pandemic to support women-led restaurants; and cohost with sister Paula of the “Super Mamás” podcast. In March she appeared on Michelle Obama’s Netflix kids show “Waffles + Mochi” to spread the word about mole.

Tortillas with various moles and a tlayuda
Festival de Moles, left, and Tlayuda Guelaguetza.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s work that my dad has been doing since ’94 — to always put Oaxaca at the highest level,” Lopez says of her father, now retired and living in Oaxaca. “He’d say, ‘I should not be looked down upon because I’m Indigenous. I’m going to make it in this country, and I’m going to prove everyone wrong.’ He taught us to love where we come from.”

These are some of the qualities that get at the other criteria Jonathan set up for the Gold Award, which went to Post & Beam last year, Cassia in 2019, chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger in 2018 and Wolfgang Puck in 2017 — celebrating “intelligence and innovation, brilliance and sensitivity to aesthetics, culture and the environment.”

“After this past year,” Lopez says of the award, “it feels as if Jonathan is coming down to give us a hand and to let us know that everything is going to be OK. Even after his passing, he continues to champion our community.”

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As part of the 2021 Los Angeles Times Food Bowl events, The Times will celebrate Gold Award winner Guelaguetza with two Oaxacan dinners at the restaurant on July 12. The first, at 5:30 p.m., will include an award presentation; the second is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. For information, go to lafoodbowl.com/gold-award/


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