A mother’s love can be a powerful motivator, especially when food and nostalgia play supporting roles. Ivan Vasquez dedicated his Madre restaurants to mom Lucila, who still lives in Oaxaca and nurtured his stomach and soul for his first 15 years. After he braved a coyote-led border crossing at age 15, Vasquez built a successful restaurant career, primarily as Baja Fresh’s regional manager, before showcasing flavors from his youth.
“I really missed my mother’s cuisine, and that’s one of the reasons that after 15 years being here, I opened my own restaurant,” he says. In 2013, Vasquez took over an existing Mexican restaurant called El Nopal in Palms, which he renamed Madre – Spanish for mother – in 2018. He also launched a larger Madre in Torrance in 2017.
Laura’s Lean Beef (and his beloved mother) inspired Vasquez to make two Oaxacan dishes that were in Lucila’s rotation: chiles rellenos and albondigas (meatballs).
To help execute his mom’s vision for diners, Vasquez collaborates with Epifania “Epi” Gaspar, a “traditional cook” from Oaxaca who started working with him at El Nopal. He pays her a high compliment, saying Epi’s cooking is “very close to my mom’s flavor.”
On the most recent Valentine’s Day morning in the compact Palms kitchen, Madre chefs prepped a substantial catering order, filling large aluminum catering trays with vivid meat preparations, rice, and fresh-fried churros. Epi served as a force of calm for the frenetic crew. She prepped her mise en place prior to our arrival and started by molding meatballs by hand with Laura’s Lean Beef, garlic, parsley, chopped tomato, cumin, and jasmine rice grains that help hold the mixture together.
She stuffed a bright green chile de agua with a sweeter Laura’s Lean Beef mixture featuring almonds, raisins and cinnamon. “It would be kind of offensive to us to use Poblano peppers in Oaxaca,” Vasquez says. “We only use chiles de agua.” This native Oaxacan chile is available at any local Oaxacan market, sized midway between a jalapeño and Poblano, and Vasquez warns they’re “spicier than both of them together.” He wasn’t joking; the pepper tingled the tip of my tongue and lips. Epi coated her chiles in fluffy beaten egg batter and pan-fried them in a shallow vegetable oil pool. Tomato sauce simmered in an adjacent pot on the stovetop, destined to join chilies on a plate.
Growing up in Oaxaca’s Valles Centrales, Vasquez’s mom made chiles rellenos stuffed with traditional queso fresco and epazote, shredded chicken or ground beef. Laura’s Lean Beef is particularly well suited to his mother’s recipe. More fat would break the ground beef filling apart and render the egg batter soggy. In this case, the dish’s integrity holds, even when plated in tomato sauce. Vasquez suggests eating with corn tortillas, white rice, or refreshing nopalito salad. Madre’s cylindrical version touts firm nopales (cactus paddles), tomato, onions, epazote, garlic, avocado, queso fresco, cilantro, and a lime squeeze.
Their juicy meatballs are mild, but Madre spikes the same tomato sauce used in chiles rellenos with warming chipotle for a stronger spice kick. Laura’s Lean Beef helps to hold the orbs together, and doesn’t leech grease in the sauce like an 80/20 blend would. Vasquez suggests eating albondigas on their own or with white rice. Using Spanish red rice would result in tomato overload.
Considering Vasquez has curated a selection of more than 450 bottles, it’s no surprise that our discussion turned to mezcal. He recommends pairing both dishes with a potent cocktail starring Mal Bien mezcal, either a refreshing Paloma mixed with grapefruit and lime juices and agave; or the more mezcal-forward Smokey Margarita that incorporates Ancho Reyes liqueur, lime juice, and agave.
When asked whether straight pours would be appropriate with this food, Vasquez says, “Of course!” He suggests either Bicuishe or Cuishe made with wild Karwinskii agave. “It also depends on the region, but I would prefer those two from a village of Miahuatlán, Oaxaca,” Vasquez says. “They have a lot of herbal notes, mineral notes that would really balance the flavor of these two dishes.”
During summer, Vasquez chases these judiciously spicy dishes with horchata, a popular agua fresca made with rice milk, cinnamon, almonds, and cane sugar that Oaxacans traditionally top with nieve de tuna (cactus fruit sorbet), cantaloupe and walnuts.
Later this year, Vasquez plans to open a third Madre restaurant, this time in West Hollywood. Regardless of his recommended beverage pairings – for these dishes or any others – Mom would no doubt approve.
- 2 lbs. Laura’s Lean Ground beef
- 1 garlic head
- 1 cup chopped onion or white onion
- 2 oz. parsley
- 2 oz. jasmine rice
- 1 teaspoon of ground pepper
- 2 oz. bread crumbs
- 2 eggs (boiled)
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Chop onions and parsley together.
- Using a large bowl Mix chopped onions and parsley with the raw meat, breadcrumbs, pepper, rice, cumin and salt (to taste).
- Add diced hard-boiled egg, and form the balls for albondigas.
- Let them chill in the fridge for 20 min.
- Put water to boil with ¼ of a whole onion and 1 head of garlic.
- When the broth is boiling, the meatballs are added and allowed to simmer.
- Cook for approximately 20 minutes so that the meatballs are not breaking apart. Place one meatball into boiling broth, at a time.
- You can take them out after a couple of minutes to make sure that they are not disappearing.
Once cooked the meatballs are ready to serve with Oaxacan tomato sauce on top and white rice.
Albondigas Tomato Sauce
- 3 lbs. Roma Tomato (Ripe)
- 2 whole onions brown or white
- 2 garlic heads
- 3 oz. canned chipotle chiles
- 1 oz. salt or more depending on your taste
- 2 oz. beef flavor bouillon
- 1 teaspoon ground pepper
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- ½ bunch parsley
- 24 oz. water
- Put Roma tomatoes in a pot of water to boil for 25 minutes.
- Once cooked, grind the tomatoes with garlic, onion, salt, peppers, cumin, and some water.
- Use a pot with 1 oz. of vegetable oil to cook the sauce. Put the pot with oil on the stove to heat for 3 minutes.
- Once all ingredients are ground, they are well fried on the pot and then beef flavor bouillon is added.
- Add the two branches of parsley and ground chipotle to the sauce.
- Wait until the sauce is slightly thick (approximately 40 min in medium flame).
- Serve the sauce on top of the albondigas balls or you can add the albondigas bowls to the sauce
Beef Picadillo for Chile Rellenos
- 3 lbs. of Laura Lean’s ground beef
- 3 lbs. chopped Roma Tomatoes
- 2 cups chopped brown onions
- 1 garlic clove
- 1 parsley bunch
- 1 oz. raisins
- 4 oz. almonds
- 1 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
- 1/2 oz. sugar
- 1/2 oz. salt
- 1 teaspoon of pepper
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 4 oz. beef seasonings
- 10 chiles de agua (can find in any Oaxacan market)
- 5 eggs
- Put the meat in a frying pan over medium heat with a little oil so that it does not stick to the comal (frying pan). Cover the pan and stir constantly so meat does not stick to the pan.
- On another pan, add a little oil, stew the onion (until crystallized and transparent in color). Add tomatoes, cinnamon, cumin, pepper, raisins, almonds, parsley, garlic, sugar and salt.
- After the tomato, onion and the rest of the ingredients are stewed, the meat is added.
- Cook for 20 minutes over low heat covered, stirring constantly so that the meat does not stick to the pan.
- Grill chiles de agua until they are blaken on both sides.Place the blackened chiles on a bowl and tightly seal them with plastic wrap. let them cool down for 20 min and peel them.
- Cut a slit along the long side of each pepper to remove the seeds and core. Rinse the peppers inside and out, and pat dry with paper towels.
- Mold mixed meat to fit inside the peppers until peppers can close completely
- Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl with the baking powder. In a second metal bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until the whites form stiff peaks. Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the yolk mixture. Place flour into a shallow bowl.
- Heat the vegetable shortening in a skillet over medium heat. Roll each stuffed pepper in flour, tap off excess flour, and dip the peppers into the egg mixture to coat both sides. Gently lay the coated peppers into the hot shortening. Fry peppers until lightly golden brown 5 min per side.
- On a separate plate put a few absorbent napkins so that you leave excess grease of chile rellenos once cooked.
Serve chile relleno with white rice and pour chile relleno salsa for maximum flavor.
Chile Relleno Sauce
- 8 lbs. of Roma Tomatoes
- 6 cups fine chopped white onions
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1 epazote bunch
- 10 chiles serranos cut them in slices
- 4 oz. of salt
- 5 oz. vegetable oil
- 1 cup of water (from cooked tomatoes)
- Put roma tomatoes in a large pot to cook in boiling water for 20 minutes.
- In a saucepan put 2oz vegetable oil on medium heat and add 3 cups of diced onion, chilis, garlic,epazote and wait until the onion is crystallized and transparent in color, you can then turn heat off. Put this mix in a separate container.
- Let boiled tomatoes cool down before adding them to the blender with the other cooked ingredients (garlic,epazote,onions,chilis) with the same water(1 cup) from tomatoes you used for boiling.
- put 3oz of vegetable oil to medium fire on a pot and add 3cups of chopped onion to it and wait until crystallized to add tomato sauce mix you had previously blended.
- Add 1.5oz of salt or salt to taste
- Let it cook for 25 minutes until orange in color and tomato sauce is totally cooked
Serve over Oaxacan chile relleno with white rice and enjoy.