Ivan Vasquez, who’s just opened his third outpost of Madre in Los Angeles, is on a mission to save small-scale mezcaleros as the pandemic threatens their livelihood.

By Andy Wang
December 14, 2020
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Credit: Jakob N. Layman

At the new outpost of Madre on Fairfax Avenue near West Hollywood, owner Ivan Vasquez has put together an unrivaled collection of more than 400 different mezcals. The restaurant could easily have even more mezcals, but Vasquez isn’t buying commercial brands like Casamigos or El Silencio.

While Madre does serve mezcal cocktails and is offering cocktail kits for takeout, Vasquez believes that the best way to enjoy good mezcal is to “sip it and not to shake it.” So Madre sells flights and bottles of the agave-based spirit. Vasquez also puts together virtual tastings and Zoom meet-and-greets with indie mezcaleros, including Sosimo Jarquín of Amormata.

“I’m very happy about and very proud of what we have accomplished at Madre for the last few years, changing the perception of mezcal,” said Vasquez, who now has three locations of Madre in Los Angeles after opening on Fairfax Avenue in November. “At Madre, one of the goals is to educate customers about mezcal. I’m happy that a lot of people in the industry have told me that Madre is the model for mezcalerias in the United States. I’m proud that our effort has done a lot for the industry. We’ve got to keep these mezcaleros alive and keep giving them business by sipping not by shaking.”

Vasquez grew up in Oaxaca, and Madre is a steadfastly Oaxacan restaurant that showcases mezcal from Oaxacan producers including Lalocura, Macurichos, and Real Minero.

 “I grew up with mezcal culture,” Vasquez said. “Knowing mezcal before the boom of mezcal, I appreciate the flavors. I also understand that the mezcaleros in Oaxaca were farmers before they became mezcaleros. Some of them only produce mezcal once a year, because they’re farmers who are also cultivating their beans, squash, and corn to survive.”

Credit: Jakob N. Layman

By supporting small mezcal producers, Vasquez is supporting multigenerational family businesses. This is important to him because he doesn’t want mezcal culture to die, which could happen if the younger generations lose interest in agave.

During the pandemic, many mezcal brands have had to cease or dial back their production. Distribution is a lot more difficult because a lot of restaurant and bar clients have disappeared.

“We’re one of the few that are still buying mezcal in volume from the alcohol suppliers,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez hasn’t been able to visit Oaxaca during the pandemic, but he’s had his family go to different mezcal producers and buy 10 bottles at a time. A house in Oaxaca that he built for his mother, Lucila Rodriguez, now has a mezcal collection with more than 100 bottles. Vasquez is looking forward to a day where he and his friends can go to Oaxaca again and enjoy his mom’s excellent cooking while sipping mezcal on the roof of the house.

In the meantime, he’s doing his best to celebrate Oaxaca in Los Angeles, where his restaurants are currently limited to takeout and delivery.

Vasquez has exclusive micro-batches of mezcal, including some from Cinco Sentidos, that no other restaurants or bars in America have. Madre makes its namesake salsa with seven kinds of Oaxacan chiles. Madre also cooks with Oaxacan spices, Oaxacan chocolate, and Oaxacan fruit, including fruit Vasquez has purchased from mezcal producers.

Credit: Jakob N. Layman

Madre pours mezcal in copitas made by Oaxacan artisans Omar Hernández and Francisco Martinez. Madre also has bowls from Martinez and plates from La Chicharra Cerámica. The new Fairfax restaurant’s decor includes diablo masks created by Alejandro Vera Guzmán. Madre even has Blancos y Bancos bags made with cooked agave waste.

Rodriguez hasn’t visited any of her son’s restaurants, but her influence is all over the menus, which feature tlayudas, tamales, moles, barbacoa de res, and other regional Oaxacan specialties. Vasquez remembers how his mom cooked three meals a day in a sweltering kitchen with no air-conditioning during his childhood. He remembers how she found time to do this even when she was also cleaning houses to support her family. Madre is a tribute to her food and her sacrifices.

Everything feels more precious and meaningful this year. Vasquez’s father died of COVID-19. Rodriguez was also infected and has recovered. Vasquez would love nothing more than to visit Oaxaca and see her, but he understands that he must minimize risk.

He’s now got enough mezcal at his Oaxaca house to open a little bar, which is something he’s considering. Whatever he does with the bottles, he knows he’s made a good investment in a community he wants to preserve. And running his L.A. restaurants keeps him constantly connected to his mother and sister, who procure all kinds of Oaxacan supplies for Madre.

“My mom likes mezcal, too,” Vasquez said. “So I’ve got to be careful with the bottles.”

Madre, 801 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, 323-850-8518