The story of Guelaguetza begins in the heart of Koreatown in 1994, when Fernando Lopez Sr. came to Los Angeles and first opened his restaurant for business. It wasn't long before the traditional Oaxacan dishes were welcomed by the community, and as the restaurant expanded, its food found champions like Jonathan Gold. Lopez may be retired now, but the business lives on in the capable hands of his children. His daughter, Bricia Lopez is now the face of the restaurant.
The exterior may suggest cuisine with an Asian flair, but inside, Guelaguetza sharpens its focus on Mexican authenticity. We entered the vast and colorful dining area to large families and groups of friends enjoying the aggressive strains of the live marima band. The atmosphere is welcoming and the servers are immediately engaging and helpful.
Chips are served warm, dressed in mole and fresh queso. The micheladas (below- top, right) offer a refreshing chile-spiked beer - in our case an ice cold bottle of Pacifico - drowned in the equivalent of a bloody mary with salted rim. Those less familiar with the popular Mexican cerveza may be surprised to find the combination is strangely refreshing. The Garre de tigre (below- bottom, right) is akin to a blended margarita, swapping the tequila for mezcal.
To begin our Oaxacan journey, we started with a fried quesadilla appetizer (below), really simple and really tasty. The salty, chewy Oaxaca cheese shone through the breading and deep frying.
After surveying the tables around us for inspiration, we ordered a tlayuda, an antojito (Mexican snack food) commonly found in Oaxaca. Tlayudas are massive thin and crispy torillas with various toppings, kind of like Mediterranean flatbreads, or very thin crust pizzas. We opted for the choriqueso version, ladden with aciento spread, shredded chorizo, Oaxaca cheese, and queso fresco (below).
Next to the table was the pozole (below), a traditional Mexican stew and famed hangover cure featuring hominy. Guelaguetza's version is stellar, with juicy bits of pork and kernels of corn swimming in a rich, chile-scented broth.
Ask several chefs for the interpretation of mole, and you'll likely seven different versions of mole ranging from considerable thickness to the thin and soupy. Mark the amarillo mole, stained yellow from saffron, into the latter category. We may have a certain affection for thicker moles, but a few spoonfuls of the silky broth-like mole was enough to at least open up an interesting debate.
We were recently heartbroken to discover that the family's newer cemitas joint Pal Cabron closed shop before we ever able to check it out. But luckily, we can still enjoy the Oaxacan fare offered by the Lopez family at Guelaguetza.