The Tasting Panel magazine

May 2018

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Page 122 of 124

122  /  the tasting panel  /  may 2018 Ivan Vasquez, Owner of El Nopal Oaxacan Restaurant and Mezcaleria in the Palms neighborhood of Los Angeles, is a living embodiment of the American dream. After immigrat- ing to the U.S. from Oaxaca, Mexico, at the age of 15, Vasquez landed his first job in America washing dishes at a Carl's Jr. while he attended high school and learned to speak English. He spent the next 15 years working for Baja Fresh's corporate offices, opening and managing 22 locations around Southern California while supporting his family back in Oaxaca. After Vasquez purchased El Nopal—then an old-fashioned Mexican restaurant serving traditional dishes—in 2012, he began the daunting task of remodeling the establishment from scratch, adding ventilation, and purchasing a liquor license. Using his mother's recipes, Vasquez reopened the restaurant with offerings that authentically represent his hometown of Oaxaca City, a more varied and multicultural region than the other small villages in Oaxaca. "I used to go to the market in Oaxaca City for my mother when I was little, and I wanted to recreate the high standards of ingredients and cooking that I experienced in Mexico," Vasquez explains. With the help of Chef Eric Nolasco, a fellow Oaxaca native, Vasquez has filled the menu with dishes like mole, tlayuda, pozole, and a weekend special (and El Nopal specialty) of goat barbacoa. Vasquez's dedication to Oaxaca doesn't end with its cuisine: El Nopal also specializes in mezcal and tequila. Inspired by time spent in his grandfather's mezcal cantina during childhood, Vasquez was determined to make the smoky spirit a focal point at El Nopal. Vasquez says he still returns to Mexico at least twice a year to visit distilleries and make sure their products are up to his high standards. "I look for what methods they use to make the mezcal, how well-educated the companies are, what their environ- mental standards are, and so on," Vasquez explains. With the recent opening of his second restaurant Madre in Torrance, Vasquez now has a 7,000-square-foot space to explore his hobby with more than 270 brands of mezcal and tequila on hand. "I didn't really appreciate mezcal in Mexico because it was everywhere, but in the U.S. it didn't have a lot of exposure, so we could carry a wide variety of styles at the restaurant without having to worry if people were going to like it," he says. "Mezcal is a huge part of history in my country—it's the literal 'spirit' of Oaxaca." Being able to pay my team well, even though we are still a small company. Debuting a new dish or revamping a traditional dish I grew up with. Socializing with humble and hardwork- ing people. Seeing my restaurants busy with people enjoy- ing our food and cocktails. Hearing people talk about my restaurants without knowing I'm the owner. Irresponsible people. When people take credit for the work of others. Latinos not supporting Latinos. Guests who are rude to my staff. THE "5" LIST IVAN VASQUEZ'S TOP FIVE FAVES: IVAN VASQUEZ'S TOP FIVE PET PEEVES: People who are only in search of the cheapest food. IVAN VASQUEZ OWNER, EL NOPAL OAXACAN RESTAURANT AND MEZCALERIA, LOS ANGELES by Jesse Hom-Dawson TAKING INVENTORY WITH . . . PHOTO: CAL BINGHAM

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