Why Oaxacan legend Guelaguetza is still a Los Angeles staple after 29 years

Guelaguetza has shone a spotlight on Oaxacan food in Los Angeles for nearly three decades. Photo credit: Guelaguetza

On any weekend night, it’s not unusual to see families and big groups of friends gathered around tables at Koreatown’s Guelaguetza. Colorful floral tablecloths are piled high with tlayudas, memelas, and other homey Oaxacan dishes the restaurant has become known for in its nearly three decades in Los Angeles.

Throughout the years, the restaurant’s dedication to community and Oaxacan homestyle cooking has earned it tons of loyal fans and several awards, including the prestigious America’s Classic award by the James Beard Foundation in 2015.

“We grew up in LA, and we love LA, but our hearts and souls are in Oaxaca,” says Bricia Lopez, who runs the restaurant with her two siblings. “Guelaguetza is a Oaxacan restaurant in a Korean building. You can’t get much more LA than that.”

With the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, there’s no better time to visit—or revisit—this legend. Read on for what makes it a Los Angeles staple. 

A beloved, long-lasting menu

A hand shown spooning some mole into a tortilla at Los Angeles Mexican restaurant Guelaguetza.

Oaxacan moles meant for sharing are among the most popular dishes at Guelaguetza. Photo credit: Guelaguetza

While Bricia and her siblings now run the show, the beloved Oaxacan menu that their parents Fernando Lopez and Maria Monterrubio created from family recipes remains. 

Everything in the restaurant is made from scratch, with many of the ingredients coming from Oaxaca. The kitchen nixtamalizes its own corn for tortillas and butchers its own meats to make everything from tasajo (dried beef) to carnitas.

“Culture is something you can’t buy,” Bricia says. “When people come to the restaurant and sit down and eat, they really do feel like they’re in Oaxaca.”

Guelaguetza’s family-style meals naturally create a sense of community. The Festival de Moles—featuring all four varieties of their mole (negro, rojo, estofado, and coloradito)—is among the favorites, as are the tacos de barbacoa and the chicken and cheese chile rellenos. “We have the best chile rellenos in the country,” Bricia says.

Traveling back to the early days

The exterior of the Los Angeles Mexican restaurant Guelaguetza with a red sign depicting its name.

Guelaguetza opened in Los Angeles’s Koreatown in 1994. Photo credit: Alberto Escobedo

Communal meals are now a staple at Guelaguetza, but the restaurant had humble beginnings. Fernando immigrated to Los Angeles in 1993 and first began selling Oaxacan food products door to door. The restaurant opened the following year once Maria and their children joined him stateside.

Guelaguetza originally opened in a different part of Koreatown before moving in 2000 to its current location, where the bright orange exterior and greenery-lined patio are synonymous with the restaurant’s warm embrace.

New generation, new look

A red mural outside the Los Angeles Mexican restaurant Guelaguetza showing a boy holding a chicken.

The Lopez siblings commissioned Oaxaca-based artists La Pistola to create the restaurant’s iconic mural. Photo credit: Guelaguetza

Bricia and her siblings Paulina and Fernando Lopez, Jr. took over the restaurant’s day-to-day operations 10 years ago. The first big change they made was to add the iconic sweeping mural by Oaxaca-based artists La Pistola to the wall of the restaurant facing Olympic Boulevard.

“We go to Oaxaca three or four times a year, to catch up with friends, but also to understand how Oaxaca is changing,” says Bricia, who found the artists along with her siblings on a trip back to Oaxaca. “We want to make sure we’re reflecting what’s happening in the region while also maintaining the centuries-old cuisine.”

The siblings also opened a small boutique inside the restaurant and an online store to showcase Oaxacan products, including ones they’ve launched like a pre-made mole starter and a michelada mix.

When to go

Dinnertime, in particular, is always a celebration, and with winter holidays down the road, things will get even more festive as the year goes on. 

“Our average table size is 12,” Bricia says. “Every table on the weekends is celebrating something, whether it’s a birthday or a rehearsal dinner. It’s a great place for families and a community.”

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Karen Palmer is a pizza- and pasta-obsessed food writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Instagram at @karenlpalmer.