After building a lauded mezcal program at Guelaguetza, her family’s James Beard Award-winning restaurant in Los Angeles, Bricia Lopez earned the nickname “the queen of mezcal.” But Lopez’s ties to the agave spirit extend far beyond L.A. “My grandpa made mezcal, my dad made mezcal, anyone who lives in Oaxaca has some kind of tie to mezcal. When you live in towns like Matatlan and Mitla, that’s just what you do,” she says, explaining how her father grew up in the former city while her mother’s family comes from the latter. “My job as a child was to go to the area with the big tree where the tourists were and tell them to try mezcal. Thirty years later, I’m still asking people to drink mezcal! It’s always been part of who I am.”
As a child Lopez didn’t think much of he family’s legacy. It wasn’t until her twenties, traveling back and forth from Los Angeles to Oaxaca, that she realized the depth and intrigue of Mexico’s indigenous spirit. “I knew mezcal as just mezcal when I was a child, but when I was able to go back and forth freely, I started to understand and learn more about it. It’s about what type of mezcal and what agaves they are using. The variations in flavor profiles and production traditions,” she says. “Since I moved to Los Angeles, I’ve had to show people our food is more than just tacos and burritos, so I started doing that with mezcal, too. There’s so much more to mezcal than you think.”
Now the daughter of mezcaleros is spreading the gospel of Mexico’s food and drink traditions beyond California’s border with a new agave spirits-focused bar program in Las Vegas called Mama Rabbit. The 4,400-square-foot space is a welcome celebration of tequila and mezcal, with the largest selection of agave spirits in Vegas, all of which Lopez selected herself. To make the program as in-depth as possible, she worked personally with distributers to get certain labels of mezcal registered for sale in Nevada. “They could have opened this bar without me and it would have been great, but the idea of getting someone who is from Oaxaca and knows the culture and paying homage to the authenticity of that place speaks very loudly to where things are going right now,” she says. “It’s beautiful and elegant and not in an in-your-face Mexican way with green and red and white everywhere. It’s feminine.”
Lopez has also written a cookbook heralding the cuisine of her native Oaxaca, called Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico. It’s the first Oaxacan cookbook written by a family native to the state, featuring recipes that merge influences from Mexico and Los Angeles. “You look at the photos in this book and you feel like you’re in Oaxaca, but we live in L.A. and we don’t have to be traditional all the time, so it’s not what you might expect from a cookbook,” she says. “It’s been an incredible journey to uphold our family’s history and these recipes that have so much history and tradition.”
By illuminating her family’s culinary traditions in the restaurant and in print, Lopez has established a platform to speak about issues that are important to her, namely immigrant rights and the cultural tapestry that immigrants have helped weave in American cities through food and drink. In 2013 she was given special recognition from L.A. city council president Herb Wesson for inspiring other women leaders, and later that year she was invited to meet with president Obama to discuss the importance of immigrant-owned businesses on the U.S. economy. “It was a meeting in the Roosevelt Room, and I was one of only nine people. Sitting next to the founders of AOL and Chobani, it was surreal to sit there and tell him my story.”
No matter who her audience is, Lopez uses her platform to inspire others to feel proud of where they come from, “no matter where that is,” she says. “When [Mexican] president Enrique Peña Nieto visited L.A., I wrote a speech for him to understand that many people who live in L.A. are not fully Mexican, nor fully American. We are fully both. We are 100 percent Mexican and 100 percent American, and these 200 percent-ers have this totally different culture that is beautiful in itself.”
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