Death has been a strange neighbor for Aaron Diaz lately. He lost his father, cousin, uncle, grandfather, and brother all in a short amount of time.
And though he grew up in Texas and counts himself as more American than Hispanic, tapping into his culture’s traditions helped him process that grief. In Mexican culture, lost loved ones are honored by celebrating their lives, not mourning their deaths.
Diaz remembers stories of his grandmother and mother celebrating the spiritual holiday Día de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” but hadn’t done it himself until 2019, the year he opened Noche Mexican BBQ in the Highlands.
“This holiday is a good time to take a break and realize all the people who helped you in their life are still here,” Diaz said. “When I first opened this restaurant, I sat down with a friend [to learn.] I said I wanted to get it right, and not commercialize it. I’m still new at this, but I wanted to make sure we are doing it correctly and not party just to party, kind of thing.”
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Diaz is among many restaurateurs in Louisville celebrating Día de los Muertos with everything from live music and dancing to face painting and food specials. The holiday on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 centers around an ofrenda, or altar, to deceased relatives. Each family’s ofrenda is quite detailed and decorated with bright clothes, marigold flowers, sugar skulls, papel picado (elaborate tissue paper cutouts) and framed photographs of relatives and friends who have passed.
Noche constructed its first ofrenda in the fall of 2019, inviting customers, friends and family to bring photos to the altar and honor their relatives. After several years of canceled events due to the coronavirus pandemic, Noche is hosting a days-long Día de los Muertos celebration to coincide with the restaurant’s third anniversary.
And this year, there will be a new photo on Diaz’ ofrenda.
“My dad … his goal was to do a restaurant and I did this for him,” Diaz said. “He helped me get open and we did the wallpaper together. He died of COVID-19 in 2020 and I still haven’t been able to put up his photo. This year will be the first his photo will be up there at the restaurant.”
Diaz said he’s planning days of events at Noche, and he’s not the only Mexican restaurant owner preparing to celebrate the holiday. Just as Mexican revelers dress up, hold parties, sing, dance, cook and eat during the holiday, restaurants around Louisville are marking the occasion with dishes like steamed tamales, colorfully decorated sugar skulls, or calaveras, long-simmering meat stews, or pozole, and pan de muerto, a yeast-heavy bread most often made with orange blossom extract or anise.
“The [Disney movie] ‘Coco‘ came out the year before we opened, and it was almost a sign to me that this is a good time to bring this to Louisville,” Diaz said. “People kind of understand it now.”
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While Diaz will be busy with his restaurant’s parties, a few miles away Mexican baker Diego Hernandez will be elbow-deep in dough in the days leading up to Día de los Muertos.
A fourth-generation baker, Hernandez has been making pan de muerto since he was young, growing up in Oaxaca, Mexico. The bread is usually a round loaf topped with crossed ropes to symbolize the bones of the dead, and is made in either anise or orange blossom flavors.
“It’s a tradition to share the bread with all your relatives and members of the family,” Hernandez said. “You bring them to your relatives as a gift, an offering, and put it on the ofrenda. It’s a symbol of the deaths we lost in the past.”
Hernandez said his mother would make tamales and mole every year, while he did the bread and his brothers made hot chocolate. They would visit the cemetery, talk about loved ones, listen to mariachi music and dance.
“It’s a happy day, we are celebrating,” Hernandez said. “And the people never die, because we still remember them and talk about them. And they are still in our family.”
Since he moved to Louisville and partnered the Mexican restaurant Foko to open a sister bakery, La Pana Bakery, Hernandez has tried to share his culture and traditional foods with Louisville. It’s working, too: the first year La Pana offered pan de muerto, Hernandez made about 150 loaves of bread.
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This year, he’s making more than 1,000.
Word has spread through repeat customers and social media, Hernandez said. People come from Lexington, Nashville and even Atlanta to try his baked goods.
“It makes me very happy because I used to be very busy in those days in Oaxaca, and I miss that and it makes me feel like I’m with my family again,” Hernandez said. “It makes me feel a part of the community and country here. People’s support is one of the most important things I really appreciate. I like to share my culture, not just sell it.”
Want to participate in this year’s holiday? Here’s what Louisville-area restaurants are offering for the Day of the Dead.
1001 Logan St.; fokofamilia.com
The Mexican restaurant Foko, inside Logan Street Market at 1001 Logan St., opened a Mexican bakery spin-off, La Pana, last year. La Pana offers pre-orders of pan de muerto each year for Día de los Muertos. La Pana makes two kinds of pan de muerto: an anise dough with sesame toppings and a touch of licorice and an orange zest dough with a cinnamon sugar topping. Pre-orders for La Pana’s pan de muerto can be found at the bakery’s Instagram page. Bundles are $15 and feed two to four people.
La Pana also makes other pastries like cinnamon sugar-coated lechecilla doughnuts filled with Oaxacan vanilla custard ($3.50), apple strudel ($3.75), blueberry scones ($3.50), chocolate croissants ($4), and rol de canela con lechecilla, or a flaky puff-pastry cinnamon roll filled with Oaxacan vanilla custard and pecans ($3.75).
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900 E. Market St.; guaca-mole-restaurant.com
This Mexican restaurant moved to a new space in NuLu a few months ago, and it’s all ready to welcome you for the Day of the Dead. Guacamole Modern Mexican will have birria tacos and Sopa de Calabaza as specials and sugar skull style face paintings.
Guacamole’s restaurant is painted with an eruption of color and decorations, and the menu features tacos, moles, enchiladas, soups and starters and of course, several dishes of guacamole.
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10000 Brownsboro Road; limonysal502.com
Limon y Sal, a Mexican restaurant in East Louisville, serves a full menu of nachos, quesadillas, street tacos and tortas, salads, burritos and combos as well as entrees, enchiladas, fajitas and more. The restaurant is planninga second location in the former Hammerheads space in the Highlands neighborhood, but it’s not open yet.
Limon y Sal’s Day of the Dead celebration will be held on Nov. 1 with gift bags for kids, an altar, pumpkin marigold margaritas, $2.50 street tacos and guacamole and queso specials, as well as live music from singer Magda Sanchez in the evening.
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1838 Bardstown Road; nochemexicanbbq.com
Noche Mexican BBQ is celebrating its third anniversary in Louisville with a series of events honoring both the restaurant’s anniversary and Día de los Muertos. The restaurant invited guests to bring photos of relatives to put on the restaurant’s ofrenda, is planning a Halloween beer collaboration with Gallant Fox Brewing Co. on Oct. 31, live music and complimentary face painting on Nov. 1, a Patron-sponsored culinary collaboration with Foko on Nov. 2, live music and airbrushing on Nov. 3 and a fiesta with salsa dancing on Nov. 4.
The culinary collaboration on Nov. 2 is the only event that requires tickets. The Patron-sponsored evening features Foko executive chef Francisco Garcia and Noche executive chef Jake Snyder creating a four-course meal with a complimentary margarita and airbrushing. Tickets are $100 and available at Eventbrite.
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Reach reporter Dahlia Ghabour at dghabour@gannett.com.

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