Inspired by His Mother, Ivan Vasquez Builds a Oaxacan Restaurant Empire in L.A.
Pair moles and tlayudas with L.A.’s most impressive collections of mezcal at Madre.
Restaurateur Ivan Vasquez is in the process of converting El Nopal, a Mexican restaurant he’s operated in L.A.’s Palms neighborhood since 2013, into an outpost of Madre.
This Madre, like the Madre that Vasquez opened in Torrance last year, is a resolutely Oaxacan restaurant, a place that honors the food of Vasquez’s childhood: traditional dishes like soul-warming moles, tlayudas, posole, memelas, goat barbacoa, fried pork ribs, tamales, and big platters of grilled meats that include cecina and chorizo. The popularity of Madre in Torrance, where customers have eagerly asked to eat grasshoppers and offal dishes like beef-tongue barbacoa, has fortified Vasquez as he works to build a collection of uncompromising Oaxacan restaurants in L.A. He’s planning to add items like moronga, a blood sausage he’ll serve on his family-style platters.
He’s already changed the menu at El Nopal. This week, he installed artwork of Emiliano Zapata, a prominent leader during the Mexican revolution. Vasquez just needs signage to be hung, which will make everything official.
He had hired somebody to put up the new Madre sign, but there have been delays. So last week, Vasquez decided to call another sign maker who can do the work in a more timely fashion. Vasquez hopes everything gets finished with the El Nopal conversion this month because he’s got lots more he wants to accomplish in the next year.
“The faster I can do this, the faster I can clean my desk and then think about a third location,” says Vasquez, who’s already looked at multiple spaces on La Brea Avenue as he tries to find a Mid-City address for Madre.
In the meantime, he’s been adding lots of mezcal to his Palms restaurant. He’s built a new shelf to make room for his 295 mezcal bottles, which is only surpassed at an L.A. restaurant by the 338 bottles he’s got in Torrance. He’s even working with mezcal producer Rey Campero on an exclusive-to-Madre batch with agave tepextate that he selected during a trip to Oaxaca.
The food at Madre is what Vasquez ate again and again when he was growing up in Oaxaca. His mother, Lucila Rodriguez, would make every meal for Vasquez, his siblings, and their “macho man” father, who demanded hot meals when he came home on his lunch break and different dishes when he returned for dinner.
“He wanted to have the best dishes at home, made by my mom, and he wanted to have different recipes every day,” Vasquez says. “My mom didn’t work, so my dad felt like he had that power to ask my mom.”
So Rodriguez spent every single day in a hot kitchen with no air-conditioning.
“Madre honors her because she’s the one who showed me the Oaxacan cuisine,” Vasquez says. “She used to wake me up for school and have breakfast ready. She picked me up from school and had lunch ready. Or she would bring me lunch at school for my break. There were handmade tortas, handmade tacos. She squeezed orange juice.”
She learned some recipes from her mother-in-law, and she also took cooking classes in Oaxaca. Even after Vasquez’s father became an alcoholic and stopped working and started wandering the streets, Rodriguez continued to cook every meal for Vasquez and his younger sister and brother while also cleaning houses to support her family. She would also welcome relatives over for dinner, so Vasquez often shared meals with aunts, uncles, and cousins.
“She used to cook with firewood and charcoal because sometimes my dad didn’t have money to pay for the gas,” Vasquez says. “When you say ‘an alcoholic’ in Mexico, it's someone that doesn't stop drinking for months and then he's homeless on the street.”
At 14, Vasquez knew he had to do something, so he went to America in 1996 to find work. His first attempt to cross the border was unsuccessful. He wanted to cry and go home, but he knew that wasn’t an option. He called his mom and told her not to worry. He told her he was in Tijuana and that he wasn’t coming back to Oaxaca. He told her he would hire another coyote and try to cross the border again.
He went to the United States in a Suburban, nestled under the driver of the SUV.
“I was very skinny at that time and I was the youngest, so they put me under the seats,” he says.
The Suburban ended up in Arizona, which was good, except that the uncle Vasquez was planning to live with was in Los Angeles. Some friends of his uncle got him sunglasses and new clothes. Then they somehow got him onto an airplane, without any ID, and he arrived in L.A.
Vasquez’s goal was to make money and send it back to his mom. He also had been DJing part-time at bars in Oaxaca and thought about returning home with enough money to purchase his own DJ equipment and start his own business. He didn’t intend on going to high school in L.A., but his uncle insisted that he do so.
Vasquez worked as a dishwasher at Carl’s Jr. for almost a year. He was still just 14, but he got a fake ID that said he was 17.
“Sometimes, I was getting home at 1:30, 2 in the morning, very wet,” he says. “I remember it was very wet because we had to wash the grill.”
He’d get up for school around 5:30 or 6.
It turned out that the teenage Vasquez was starting a tremendously successful career in the restaurant business. In the beginning, he sent $100 a month to his mom. The money that went back to Oaxaca then turned into $400 to $500 a month, and then to $700 a month as Vasquez took care of some of his father’s debts and also helped his siblings go to school.
At 15, Vasquez became a cashier at the West L.A. location of Baja Fresh, an emerging fast-casual chain. The manager was worried about Vasquez’s limited grasp of English but took a chance on him, and Vasquez rewarded his employer’s faith by staying late to clean the dining room. He also learned English and kept getting promoted at work.
At 17, he became a shift manager. At 18, he became a restaurant manager. At 20, he became the general manager of a Baja Fresh that was doing $3 million a year in sales. At 22, he became an assistant regional manager, whose employees included the manager who hired him when he was 15. At 24, he became the district manager. He opened four Baja Fresh locations and was in charge of 14 restaurants.
There were many challenges along the way, of course. He didn’t have a driver’s license until he was 24. He remembers driving to work without a license one day and being pulled over by the police.
“They let me go because I was on my way to work and I was still young and I was wearing my tie, because, back then, managers at Baja Fresh wore ties,” he says. “They said, ‘You’re going to Baja, OK. Keep going. Just lower your speed.’ It was more community-friendly back then, the police.”
Eventually, Vasquez needed a license to become district manager and drive a company truck, so his boss give him a one-week vacation to sort this out. Vasquez had a connection in Washington state who said he could help. So Vasquez drove 18 hours by himself, without a license, and passed the written test and then was told there were no driving-test appointments for two weeks.
“So now I’m screwed,” he says. “They told me I could try to do a standby.”
He went back at 7 a.m. the next day. The second appointment didn’t show up, so Vasquez was given the slot. He passed the driving test, got a temporary license, and headed back to L.A. He was actually stopped by the highway patrol on his way home for speeding, but he showed his temporary license and only got a warning.
So in 2013, when he decided to open his own restaurant with $40,000 in savings and he realized that many restaurant spaces cost five to 10 times as much, he was undaunted. He had already beaten much tougher odds multiple times. He saw the El Nopal space, which was priced at $80,000 but had no ventilation and a kitchen that was 40 years old. He asked family members for loans. He put all of his money into taking over and renovating the restaurant. He spent more than a year working to get a liquor license. He slowly made El Nopal’s food more Oaxacan and moved away from its menu of hard-shell tacos and wet burritos.
The success of the 48-seat El Nopal made it possible for Vasquez to open the 230-seat Madre in Torrance. The owner of the Torrance building that houses Madre was a regular at El Nopal. The Torrance restaurant was an instant hit, with a line out the door on its first weekend. The buzz has continued to build.
Vasquez has become the mezcal king of L.A. He’s become even more focused on importing chiles, cheese, and spices from Oaxaca as he showcases the big flavors of his childhood. One popular dish that Vasquez recently added is fried pork ribs (costillas) in a chile morita salsa.
“It’s a dried chile we bring in from Oaxaca every week,” he says. ”I was afraid to put it on the menu at first because it’s spicy, very intense, but people love it.”
Regulars at the Torrance restaurant have come into the Palms restaurant and asked for this dish, which is something Rodriguez used to cook for her children. She might never fully understand the impact she’s had on her son’s restaurants, but Vasquez will always pay tribute to her.
There’s a mural of Rodriguez at Madre in Torrance, but she hasn’t seen it in person. Relatives have shown her pictures of the mural and other parts of Vasquez’s restaurants on Instagram, but she’s expressed no desire to visit. Vasquez wants to bring her over, so she can truly see what she’s inspired, but he’s not pressuring her. She’s earned the right to make her decisions on her own schedule.
There’s about to be a new grandchild in L.A., so maybe that will be another reason to schedule a trip. Vasquez and his wife, an American citizen he married while he was already studying for citizenship, are about to have their third child, a second son, any day now, before the Madre signage is even finished.
Whether Rodriguez ever comes to L.A. or not, Vasquez will respect her decision. He understands how his mother is. No matter how many restaurants he opens, she’ll always see herself as the one who makes food for her family. So when Vasquez visits Oaxaca, which he’s trying to do every three months, Rodriguez asks him what he wants to eat. Which of his favorites should she make? What would he like for breakfast and lunch tomorrow?
“She still cooks like she did 25 years ago,” Vasquez says. “She’s still waiting for me at night to have dinner with her.”
Vasquez is building Rodriguez a house in Oaxaca. The work has taken more than a year, but it will be finished in the next couple months. The roof of the two-story home is getting completed now. There will be a bar for mezcal and wine on the roof. The house will have air-conditioning, of course, and a kitchen with marble tiles. Vasquez is going to let his mom pick her own appliances.