Oaxaca-native Ivan Vasquez worked his way up in the LA restaurant scene through beloved fast-casual brand Baja Fresh —eventually overseeing some 15 locations in the Southland area. From there, he jumped to Veggie Grill, a new company at the time, before branching out on his own.
“I bought El Nopal in 2013,” Vasquez told Citizine of the former Tex-Mex restaurant in Palms he spent a year converting into his dream restaurant. “What inspired me was the vision I had to bring Oaxaca and mezcal to the Westside.”
His vision (and his mother’s traditional recipes) paid off. “We have the reputation now in LA,” not just for delicious moles and Oaxacan cuisine, but for a near-encyclopedic mezcal menu. “I believe in mezcal,” Vasquez adds. “I support every single mezcaleria in Oaxaca.”
Ivan Vasquez at Madre
At El Nopal, the mezcal list is some 170 bottles deep, with an additional 40 tequilas. At Madre, Vasquez’s follow-up to El Nopal, which opened up last year in Torrance, the mezcal list is 210 bottles deep, plus some 55 tequilas. For both menus, each bottle is broken down by agave varietal, distillation process, age, and other factors. “It’s a mezcal bible,” Vasquez says with a smile. “Mezcal has elevated bartenders in LA, because you need to be prepared to field questions—how old is it, where is it from.”
As Vasquez sat down to give us his favorite places to drink mezcal around LA, he also added some important tips: “You don’t need the orange, but you need water to enjoy mezcal. And you don’t sip mezcal, you kiss mezcal.”
Ivan Vasquez: El Nopal is best for lunch. We’ve been supporting mezcal and Oaxaca for five years, and have a great selection of cocktails: the Smokey Mule, Smokey Margaritas, a Paloma, and others.
Harvard Heights, $$
IV: The Lopez family has done a fantastic job representing Oaxacan culture and mezcal. They have a wonderful selection of mezcal.
Petty Cash Taqueria
IV: The are more Modern Tex-Mex, but have a lot of interesting plates. Sophisticated tostadas, ceviches. I’m impressed with their selection of mezcal. They’re legit.
Scopa Italian Roots
IV: Only for dinner. When I feel like taking my wife for a date, we go here. It is the only Italian restaurant with mezcal. Pablo [Moix, the co-owner] is Colombian, and has a great reputation in LA.
IV: Madre is more for a night visit. We’re open late, and have about a 20% more selection of mezcal than El Nopal. There’s also live music. I’ve always dreamt of having a place like that to go to. Now I have it and I’m very pleased other people go and enjoy what I envisioned five years ago. I’m happy the South Bay appreciates it.
IV: A lot of Oaxacan culture here. Los Amantes in Oaxaca City looks exactly like Las Perlas. It’s late-night mezcal. Live music. A taco lady making tacos. Great that they understood that people need to be eating with mezcal.
Header image courtesy of El Nopal