There wasn’t a tlayuda or plate of mole negro in sight when L.A.’s popular Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza celebrated its 20th anniversary with a dinner on August 11.
Instead, guests dined as if they were in the trendy restaurant Origen in Oaxaca city. Its chef, Rodolfo Castellanos, flew in to recreate his innovative cuisine for Guelaguetza’s owners — the Lopez family — their friends, and some of the town’s top Mexican chefs.
For Maria Lopez, letting someone else cook contrasted radically with Guelaguetza's early days. Then, she spent up to 20 hours a day in the kitchen, at the same time caring for four children. “It was hard at the beginning, very hard,” she said.
In 2000, Lopez and her husband Fernando moved Guelaguetza from 8th Street to Olympic Boulevard, where it has become a bright orange Koreatown landmark.
Those four small kids now run the restaurant, with Bricia Lopez and Fernando Jr. in charge. Their parents, who have moved back to Mitla, Oaxaca, returned to Los Angeles for the celebration.
The five-course dinner started with codorniz en escabeche — quail and vegetables pickled in vinegar seasoned with oregano, cinnamon and jalapenos.
Next came aguachile de callo de hacha con chile de agua — scallop aguachile that picked up fire from the native Oaxacan chile de agua,.
Castellano then went fusion, with pescado con tinga, adding shredded chicken tinga and bits of crisp chicken skin to a sauce for tilapia. “It sounds kind of weird,” he said, “but the flavor is really nice.” The corn kernels on the side were mixed with shredded Swiss chard.
The name, filete de cerdo con salsa de durazno y mezcal, sounds simple compared to what Castellano did to the filete — pork tenderloin. He wrapped the meat in fresh hoja santa leaves and cooked it sous vide, then sliced it into medallions. On one side of these, he poured a clear mezcal and peach sauce. On the other was a puree of sunchokes with a touch of celery root. Diced peaches accented the sweet fruitiness and crisp onions went on top.
Dessert — trufa crujiente de chocolate y chile pasilla — brought in a Middle Eastern touch: shredded kadaif pastry. The crisp strands coated a warm chocolate truffle spiced with pasilla chile. Its cool companions were passion fruit sorbet and mixed berries.
Guests helped themselves to bottles of mezcal, some brought straight from Oaxaca and not available here. And they drank in the authentic Oaxacan way, out of gourd cups inscribed with an anniversary tribute.
Although the senior Lopezes have left Guelaguetza and Los Angeles, they have not given up the restaurant business. Their latest project is Pink Burger in downtown Mitla, where instead of tlayudas and mole negro they serve burgers and buffalo wings. Maria Lopez still cooks but, as she says happily, without the drudgery that went into creating L.A.’s landmark Oaxacan restaurant.