Chef Julián Lopez-Kelly’s fascination with food began in the Chiapas jungle.
He was just a child from a family of coffee farmers in Oaxaca. After playing kickball on the Mexican coffee plantation with his cousins, Lopez-Kelly would sneak into the kitchen of his grandfather’s house and watch the cooks turn chili peppers and chocolate into jars of glittering nigger mole. He was amazed.
“They had a pot full of little chocolate balls,” recalls the chef, who is Mexican-American. “I always put my hand in it when they weren’t looking.”
Lopez-Kelly has reinvented those flavors of home at Molli Restaurant & Lounge, a new fine dining restaurant that opened this week in Concord’s Todos Santos Plaza. Located inside the former Agave Grill at 1935 Galindo St., Molli is inspired by Lopez-Kelly’s animated pop-up of the same name. The emphasis is on dishes from around the world cooked through the prism of Oaxacan cuisine. Expect dinner to start Thursday through Sunday, with plans to add breakfast and brunch soon.
The restaurant is still owned by Agave owner Reyes Ramos, but Lopez-Kelly runs the kitchen. And made all the desserts. And daily purchases of fresh ingredients – only at Concord. Cocktails are also his creations. It has a small team – including Sous Chef Pedro Hernandez, who has been in the kitchen from Agave – and management plans to hire more staff if needed.
Lopez-Kelly’s previous experience includes stints at Dia Y Noche and Teleferic Barcelona, both in Walnut Creek, and at Puesto in Concord, where he was a bartender. But that was at his last gig, the six-month-old pop-up at La Fritanguera de Concord, where he won an audience for his unique mole presentations – vinaigrette pastes, for example, or spring rolls – as well as pizzabirria.
“It’s cheese and birria meat served on a large tortilla, like a pizza, with broth for dipping,” he says. “My birria is something that I have cultivated over the years. “
These dishes are on the menu alongside rib eye steaks that Lopez-Kelly ages for up to 60 days, duck breast served with whipped purple potatoes and blueberry hibiscus sauce and Tres leches tobacco ice cream served with a prickly pear sorbet balancing the palate.
“I’ve always had this idea of doing high-end catering, something different that doesn’t really exist at Concord,” he says.
Is Concord ready? Lopez-Kelly believes his food is affordable. Entrees cost up to $ 38 (that generous duck breast, served with a confit leg), but that’s not uncommon in nearby towns like Walnut Creek and Lafayette. And there are plenty of options to suit the wallet, including a rotating selection of street tacos: Guajillo shrimp with cilantro-lime coleslaw and chili de arbol aioli; marinated skirt steak with chimichurri, blueberry and hibiscus sauce and queso; and pollo pibil, marinated chicken Yucatan style with marinated red onions.
What attracts him most in the kitchen is to marry the flavors of different cuisines, or to bring a new perspective to a dish, like manchamanteles, a dark red mole from Oaxacan that the chef serves with grilled pineapple, plaintains and a bone-in pork chop instead of having these elements mixed in a traditional stew.
“The kitchen is a blank canvas where you can do everything,” he says.
Lopez-Kelly moved to the United States for his high school education, settled in New Hampshire, and worked as a diver in a restaurant at age 14. a small bistro.
After graduation – Lopez-Kelly has a master’s degree in economics and literary theory – he returned to Mexico, where he opened a small bar and restaurant. He decided to return to the United States after the birth of his daughter, teaching Spanish language and literature at a boarding school in Pennsylvania, where he often cooked for students.
“A lot of the kids were international and a lot of them were homesick, so they would show up at my door with a steak or other ingredients and ask me to cook something for them,” he recalls.
A teaching job at Carondelet High School drew Lopez-Kelly to the Bay Area. A few years later, during his pandemic pop-up, he was approached to make Molli permanent.
“We created a small partnership,” he says. “I can’t wait to see where this goes. “