Leon Vasquez at Loló with Ingredient-Driven Cocktails

leon vasquez of lolo shaking a cocktail
Leon Vasquez of Loló. Photo: Nicola Parisi

You may know Loló for its turquoise exterior that dots Valencia Street in the heart of the Mission. You may know it as the place where groups of hungry diners spill into the street most nights of the week, crowding the sidewalk, while they wait for a table. You may know it for its refined yet comforting array of Mexican food, highlighting the bright flavors of Guadalajara. Or, like me, you may know it for its innovative cocktails, the drinks mixed with ingredients usually found on a plate rather than in a glass, like arugula, goat’s milk or long black pepper. These drinks, among the best that San Francisco has to offer, elevate what cocktails are, and can be, while telling the story of the person behind them and the two places he calls home.

The drinks are the brainchild of bar manager León Vasquez, a tall, quiet man whose arms are decorated with eclectic tattoos. You can often find him greeting guests with a warm smile from behind the bar, where he values hospitality as much as balanced cocktails. He works closely with Jorge Martínez and Juan Carlos Ruelas, the restaurant’s owner-operators, to create a finely tuned experience for guests, leaving you feeling cared for and full of delicious food.

Vasquez has been tending bar here since he arrived in San Francisco just over five years ago, though his relationship with Martínez and Ruelas dates back much further. Martínez and his wife, Lorena Zertuche (whose nickname is Loló, for whom the restaurant is named), own several other places in Guadalajara, including i Latina, Anita Li and another Loló. Vasquez began bussing tables at i Latina about a decade ago before working his way up to barback and then bartender. He managed the bar at Anita Li when it opened, and worked there until moving to San Francisco.

An agave focus + a little bit of everything.

It was through his work at i Latina and Anita Li that Vasquez met Gustavo Barreras, who was Loló’s original bar manager, back when it was a tiny cevicheria tucked away on 22nd Street between Valencia and Mission. Vasquez and Barreras became friends, and when Barreras moved to San Francisco to roll out the bar program, Vasquez quickly followed. The two worked side by side until Barreras left the city, which was shortly before the second Loló location opened with a full liquor license on Valencia Street, where it currently operates. Vasquez took over management responsibilities at the new location. He worked with Davíd Gallardo, who is also from Guadalajara, keeping alive the original vision for the bar. “We had an agave focus, but a little bit of everything,” Vasquez says. Vasquez began to work closely in the kitchen with Martínez, who would show him different ways to cook and prepare ingredients. “Jorge is very supportive. He’s taught me a lot about flavor and technique,” Vasquez says.

The bar program blossomed and drew a loyal group of industry regulars and tequila enthusiasts. Small decorative tumblers filled with neat pours of obscure mezcal and coupe glasses topped with bright green cocktails often accompany plates of house-made tortillas piled high with tender braised meats. Most nights, the bar is packed with people exchanging friendly hellos, often because they met while sipping drinks on neighboring stools. There’s a warm, congenial atmosphere at Loló. Vasquez embodies the kind of inviting hospitality that is a staple in Mexican culture, which is amplified by his love of working behind the bar. He often facilitates conversations among his regulars, introducing people he thinks should know each other, and always remembers names. He’ll talk to anyone about agave spirits, knows the food menu inside out, and pours tastes for curious guests. He, and the rest of the staff, provide the kind of service for which other bars and restaurants are continuously striving.

Vasquez’s ambassadorship is also evident in the massive selection of Mexican spirits that he stocks. Loló’s backbar is lined with colorful bottles ranging from agave-based spirits like mezcal, tequila, sotol, raicilla (which predates the arrival of the conquistadores), bacanora (made in Sonora), and others like paranubes (a sugar cane–based rum) and Fernet (an amaro). The restaurant has more in its private collection, which is not available on the menu. The place is constantly in conversation with producers, people who work for distributors, and friends—both local and back in Mexico—to discover products that are high quality. Loló also carries spirits from brands that care about fair trade, have respect for producers and are transparent about the ethics of the company. The enormity of the selection is often overshadowed by the cocktails, but Vasquez says there are many customers who come in to taste through bottles they’ve never tried before. “We get people who are enthusiasts, as well as those who are curious but don’t know much,” he says.

blood brother cocktail at lolo
The Blood Brother features a combination of mezcal, two different amaros and makrut leaf syrup. Photo: Nicola Parisi

Dining out for inspiration

During the time that Vasquez and Gallardo were sharing management duties, many new bars and restaurants were opening. Vasquez and his staff would visit as many of these newcomers as they could for inspiration. He became familiar with California produce served in dishes all over town, and tasted spirits that weren’t available in Mexico. “The amount of ingredients grown in California is overwhelming,” he says. “And there are hundreds of spirits here that you can’t get in Mexico. I’ve learned a lot from dining out.”

Vasquez and Gallardo began to have fun with their drinks, building from the classic cocktails that are staples at bars across the country. They created drinks that worked with food and used ingredients like carrot juice, parsley, jalapeño brine clarified with goat’s milk, apple vinegar and saffron. “The cocktails and food work great because of their vibrance, colorfulness and mixture of flavors and textures, the same as Loló’s personality,” Ruelas says. The team made the bar a standout, earning both Vasquez and Gallardo Bar Star awards from the San Francisco Chronicle in 2015.

Like Barreras, Gallardo eventually returned to Guadalajara. Since 2016, Vasquez has been solely responsible for the cocktail program at Loló, which has become increasingly ingredient-driven. “Even before he took over, he was moving in his own direction,” Ruelas says. “He uses a concert of flavors, colors and nostalgia to create his drinks. He made a drink with coconut water and onion, and I never imagined those flavors would work together. Like with the Truffled Cobbler cocktail, it’s all there—the texture, perfume, palate and color. A lot of his ideas come from his hometown, which he is very proud of.” Katira Arak, who has been working at Loló’s with Vasquez for the past five years, credits his curiosity. “He has insane knowledge about all things bar-related and is creative,” she says. “He’s always thinking about trying something new and different.”

lady on fire cocktail at lolo
Vasquez’s Lady’s on Fire is spiked with watermelon kimchi. Photo: Nicola Parisi

The newest cocktail menu highlights just this: a blend of something classic, something new, something Mexican, and something American. Take the Border Crossing, with its combination of sotol, a spirit made from the dasylirion plant that grows throughout northern Mexico; St. George Terroir Gin, made across the bay in Alameda; kale and arugula, two staples of California cooking; honey; and pineapple and lime, classic Mexican ingredients. There are similar concoctions all over the menu, with combinations of tequila and mezcal swirled around with ingredients found in countries outside of Mexico. “León’s palate has evolved so much because he’s been exposed to a variety of foods and new flavors that are not linked to Mexican food. I think it’s representative of what a melting pot San Francisco, and California, is,” says Ruelas.

Lately, Vasquez has been experimenting with fermentation, which was spurred by his penchant for pungent, strong, vinegary flavors. Martínez recently bought him new equipment to work with, which he used to make a watermelon kimchi for the Lady’s on Fire. True to form, it’s another drink that quietly pushes the envelope, with its combination of house-made ingredients, tequila and tonic. If you catch Vasquez behind the bar, ask him about his drinks, what’s new behind the bar, or where he’s eaten lately—he’s one of the friendliest bartenders you’ll meet. “I feel lucky to work next to him,” Ruelas says. The quality of his drinks is just icing on the cake.