Bricia Lopez was 17 the first time she was fired — by her father. She had stayed out late partying and, afraid to come home, crashed at a girlfriend's house. His wrath was swift.
Though the family restaurant business had always been her safety net, she got a job as a hostess at a seafood joint. “It was empowering,” she says.
Lopez returned to her father's restaurant after four months. Since then, he has fired her three more times, she thinks. At some point, he has fired all four of his children. Yet they keep coming back.
Fernando Lopez Sr.'s legacy looms large over Guelaguetza, the Oaxacan restaurant he opened in 1994 as a true hole-in-the-wall, with only three tables, in the heart of Koreatown. When people told him he should sell burgers and burritos, he stuck to chapulines and tlayudas. Eventually, the fried grasshoppers and thin, crisp pizzas smeared with black beans, chicharron (pork rind) paste and quesillo caught on beyond the tight-knit Oaxacan community, and the eatery expanded into a thriving minichain.
Lopez and siblings Paulina, Fernando Jr. and Elizabeth grew up working at Guelaguetza. They now oversee its day-to-day operations, in addition to newer enterprises such as cemita shop Pal Cabron and Oaxacan juice bar Natura.
With her voluble charm and affection for customers, Lopez is the most visible face of the business. She'll become more visible this summer as the spokesperson for a “Got Milk?” campaign targeted at California's Hispanic market.
Her encyclopedic knowledge of mezcal is commemorated with half a dozen drinks named for her at L.A.'s chicest cocktail haunts. (Pablo Moix at La Descarga made the first, a sweet/smoky blend of yellow chartreuse and mezcal.)
Born in Mitla, Mexico, it wasn't until Lopez moved to L.A. at age 10 that she tried the greasy, fried glop Americans call “Mexican food.” She and her siblings have continued on the path their father forged toward giving Americans a more nuanced appreciation of her native cuisine, serving the complex moles and huitlacoche empanadas that are staples of Oaxaca. She has married the traditional and the regional with the pan-ethnic and the pop-up, inviting rising chefs to step behind the stoves and create foie gras cemitas. “It's more than food on a plate. It's about providing a cultural experience.”
Behind her amiable, thousand-watt smile lurks a rigorous work ethic and an abiding respect for tradition. She's up by 7 a.m. most days. “My father never let us sleep later than that. You were lazy if you slept past 7.” She attends church every Sunday with her family, followed by a big brunch at Guelaguezta, naturally.
She knows she still has plenty to learn. One lesson: “Move slow, take care of details and don't expand too fast,” she says. After trying to revive the long-dormant Palms location of Guelaguetza, Lopez and her brother nixed plans to reopen it as a more modern Oaxacan restaurant.
She's in no danger of being fired again, but Lopez and her father, who's officially retired, still quarrel from time to time. “We don't always see eye to eye because we are so similar,” she says, “but my dad is my biggest mentor. He is always the person I look to.”
This story is from our current People Issue. To read more, see our cover story.