Mad Mex celebrates Dos Decadas

Written by Bob Batz Jr. on


Mad Mex opened in Oakland on Oct. 29, 1993.

From the very start, and I was there, the place had the aura of a next big thing. It was one of the first of a new breed of restaurants in this then-backward town, with an unprecedented, curated, rough-hewn hipness, and it certainly was a game-changer for the kinds of good "microbrews" it served.

I'd put a bronze plaque at the corner of Atwood and Bates as an important, if not holy, site in the history of craft beer in Pittsburgh.

The Big Burrito Restaurant Group that Mad Mex grew into is marking the anniversary appropriately, having commissioned a special India pale ale that will be tapped at that and the now 10 other Mad Mex locations at 5 p.m. this Wednesday, Oct. 9.

They expect to quickly sell out of the brew, which was made by one-time Mad Mex Oakland denizen Matt Cole, who's now brewmaster at Fat Head's Brewery in Middleburg Heights, Ohio.

His creation is Dos Décadas IPA, a big India pale ale brewed with "a reckless abuse" of Simcoe hops that weighs in at 80 IBUs, or international bitterness units, and 7.5 percent alcohol by volume.

Mr. Cole explains how the brewery had the Simcoes shipped overnight from Washington's Yakima Valley, just as they were picked, and the brewers used them fresh in the beer, towards the end of the brewing process and after, in a "hopback." 

“You can compare it to fresh herbs [vs.] dry herbs," says the brewer, who loves Simcoes for the tropical-fruit as well as piney character they add to the brew.

Fat Head's also corraborated with Big Burrito on the custom taps, which feature bobbleheads painted Dia de los Muertos style.

Once again, perfectly appropriate.

Over the phone from his brewery, Mr. Cole recalls watching Mad Mex's funky space and decor come together under the direction of architect Riva Sloan, who told him how "a Jewish gentleman and Korean guy were going to open a Mexican restaurant that was going to serve microbrewed beers."

That was Tom Baron and his then business partner, Juno Yoon.

That last microbrew part really caught the attention of Mr. Cole, who lived nearby, attended the University of Pittsburgh, and was dabbling in homebrewing as well as working in sales for Penn Brewery.

Before long, Penn brews were on three of Mad Mex's taps. The place was selling a lot of other quality drafts as well as an array of bottled microbrews that they brought in, mostly from nearby Mellinger's Beer Distributor. Or that they bootlegged from Eastern Pennsylvania and beyond.

It was THE place to get the best beer. And because they were getting distributors to bring in good beers, more good beers were available to other places and to home consumers.

“That became my hangout," recalls Mr. Cole. "It did enlighten me in a lot of ways. It became a great little educational spot for me.”

For instance, he can remember meeting Sam Calagione when the Dogfish Head Brewery founder was just starting out, marketing his Shelter Pale Ale and Chicory Stout. Mr. Cole remembers thinking that Dogfish Head wasn't going to have much of a future. 

He also remembers thinking how someday he'd like to brew beer professionaly and maybe even have a brewery.

And now here he is.

"And to think," he says, "that I got to make a beer for them 20 years later? That's a hell of an honor."

Happy anniversary, Mad Mex.

I look forward to toasting your dos decadas on Wednesday.

Matt Cole might even come back to raise a toast, too.  


Mad Mex photos

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