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Sabores Oaxaqueños in Koreatown
Wonho Frank Lee

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A Brief History of Oaxacan Restaurants in Los Angeles

It all started with in the importation of Oaxacan ingredients

LA’s Oaxacan population began to surge during the Bracero Program (1942 to 1964) and then again in 1994 as a result of the Mexican Peso Devaluation and NAFTA, the same year Soledad Lopez first opened Guelaguetza on Eighth Street. At the time, it was the first traditional Oaxacan restaurant in Los Angeles featuring the cuisine of Santiago Matatlán.

Before Guelaguetza, Oaxacan restaurateurs backed such popular spots as Nelly’s (1989) and Tlapazola Grill (1992), which was dedicated to just mole negro and a few other Oaxacan-inspired plates. They were limited to those dishes because the owners were deprived of indispensable Oaxacan ingredients like tlayudas (large, thin corn tortillas), queso Oaxaca, hierba santa (Mexican pepperleaf), fresh and dried chiles, chocolate, and chapulines (dried grasshoppers).

Soledad sold food products to LA’s Oaxacan community for years before saving up enough money to open Guelaguetza in 1994. It was a milestone year for the rise of the Oaxacan population and culture in LA, a.k.a. Oaxacalifornia. The debut of La Feria de los Moles and the Guelaguetza Festival coincided with the debut of Soledad’s restaurant, resulting in an explosion of immigration and traditional Oaxacan eateries. Oaxacalifornia is the name given to Southern California by the Oaxcan community for its sizable Oaxaca population and culture, where in many cases, whole towns in Oaxaca are better represented in LA than back home.

Mural inside Guelaguetza, Los Angeles
Wonho Frank Lee

Santa Monica’s El Texate preceded Guelaguetza by a few months, in 1994. The community also saw the opening of Chulada Grill, a Mexican restaurant with many Oaxacan dishes opened by a family from Tlacolula. “Seeing her [Soledad] bring the ingredients gave us the means to open our own restaurant,” said Norma Garcia, owner of Juquila (1998) in West LA. Oaxaca’s gastronomy is inflexible when it comes to its products — Jaliscans, Zacatecans, and Sinaloans were able to more or less adapt to LA’s local ingredients, but Oaxacan cuisine was not as easy to execute with the proper elements.

From tlayudas to chapulines to the various dried chiles used in moles, Oaxacan ingredients descended upon the LA market, transforming the local Mexican dining scene forever. Oaxaca comprises eight regions (Mixteca, Cañada, Valles Centrales, Istmo, Costa, Sierra Sur, Mixteca, Sierra Norte, La Cuenca del Papaloapan), but most of LA’s Oaxacan restaurants hail from the Valles Centrales region, with a few from Sierra Norte and some from Mixteca.

The area’s Oaxacan population has enclaves in Pico-Union (Oaxacan Corridor-Crenshaw to Westmoreland), Koreatown, Harvard Heights, Arlington Heights, Hollywood, and West LA, among others. When the first restaurants opened, the provincial cookery of the Valles Centrales and Mixteca dominated, but Oaxacalifornian cuisine also means burritos with mole, combo plates, the taco de la tia, mole samplers, parrilladas. They’re local recipes created by the various restaurateurs and the imagination of LA’s Oaxacan chefs and cooks.

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