Call it the summer of Bricia Lopez. There she was at the L.A. Street Food Fest serving up her mom's Oaxacan tamales and mini-cemitas. There she was at Guelaguetza during the World Cup, pouring shots of mezcal and passing 'round the micheladas. After last weekend's Korean BBQ Cook-Off in Koreatown, she plied a crowd with arroz con leche and cinnamon-tinged coffee.
You're bound to bump into her at an underground dinner, the latest restaurant, or at any of the bars where she has inspired bartenders to name cocktails after her, from the "Sweet Bricia" at 320 Main in Seal Beach to the "Brisa de Oaxaca" at La Descarga in Hollywood.
So who is Bricia Lopez? If you run with a certain crowd of culinary fans, then you might already know Bricia and her younger brother, Fernando. He's a charmer too. "Don't dance with me, or you'll fall in love," he recently was overheard teasing a woman at the downtown bar Las Perlas (where there happens to be a cocktail called, simply, "the Bricia").
They're the scions of the family that owns the Guelaguetza restaurant empire, built over 17 years on the ambitions of an immigrant patriarch and the deft spicing of his wife's Oaxacan moles.
And now the daughter-and-son duo are reinvigorating the family business with all the fervent vision of the young and tapped-in.
Bricia, 25, and Fernando, who just turned 23, opened Cemitas y Clayudas Pal Cabron last year in Huntington Park, their brash celebration of fat Puebla-style sandwiches and those Oaxacan disks of thin tortillas as big as stop signs, smeared with beans, string cheese and meat. The restaurant's name (too indelicate to translate) evoked a few early complaints, but bloggers, critics and diners were won over by the decor -- flashy murals of the namesake mullet-sporting hombre and his supporting cast of busty ladies -- as much as the sandwiches. Not to mention the charisma of Bricia and Fernando, who are proponents of all things Oaxacan (in Bricia's case, maybe especially mezcal).
Last month they debuted NaturaBar, a juice bar next to the original Guelaguetza on 8th Street -- a rainbow store of licuados (smoothies), raspados (shaved ice) and family-recipe ice creams such as flor de pina (pineapple blossom) and leche quemada (burnt milk).
And they're the new faces of the Guelaguetza restaurants (there are currently three), helping to turn the business around after a couple of rocky years. Restaurant sales were down so much last year that Bricia says, "It was catastrophic." The family sold a cheese factory outside of Fresno, which was producing Oaxacan quesillo, and a money-wire service. "We had expanded like we were Jack in the Box.... We thought we could rule the world," she says. "But we didn't."
Sometimes, it's almost hard to believe that they can't. By the time Bricia, who has a degree in business from Mount St. Mary's College, was 22 she had started an import division of South Gate-based Guelaguetza Food Products, where her mom, Maria, oversees the production of moles and a variety of meats -- such as the cesina (marinated pork), tasajo (salted, sliced beef) and chorizo. The import business, Surtex Foods, now brings in 5,000 tlayudas (tortillas) and 1,700 pounds of cheese a week from Mexico.
But Bricia has always been advanced. Born in Mitla in Oaxaca, she came out of the womb with two front teeth. (No, she didn't ask for a shot of mezcal.) "Everybody in my town freaked out," she says. And she has energy to spare. Describing herself, she says: "You know that girl you see in her car singing as loud as she can and you want to tell her, 'Stop it, we can see you'? Well, that girl is me."
Fernando, who graduated last year with an economics degree from UC Santa Cruz, might come across as slightly more shy, inclined to read books such as "Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value," but he's just as hospitable. Stop by Natura on any given afternoon and he's probably there to scoop up one of his favorite combinations of ice cream for you -- limon with leche quemada, but the ratio has to be more leche quemada than limon, he says.
It helps that they are well connected -- with bloggers, chefs, bartenders, other restaurateurs -- mostly because they're just interested. "Food, drink, art, sports, these are the things that bring people together," Bricia says. And when she brings people together, she really brings people together. She bought a 150-inch TV screen for the huge Guelaguetza on Olympic Boulevard in Koreatown, and legions of soccer fans -- including chef Ludovic Lefebvre and LA Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold -- and six TV stations showed up for the World Cup games.
To think that their father -- Fernando Lopez Mateos, who opened the first Guelaguetza in 1994 -- had said airing the World Cup was a bad idea. "He didn't think anyone would come," Bricia says.