Story by Muriel Vega. Photos by Jenni Girtman
The first thing you’ll spot at one of chef Maricela Vega’s intown food pop-ups is her bright red neon sign that spells “Tamales.” Sitting on each counter like a flag staking her territory, the sign’s retro style informs her back-to-basics style of cuisine, with only sustainably grown vegetables and ingredients that support as many local farmers as possible.
“Working with tamales was the most community-grounded moment that I first experienced,” Vega says. “We were getting the banana leaves from my parents’ house, and then all of the vegetables were either ones they grew or from the farmers market. It was just like: Wow, this tamale is Atlanta.”
No relation to this writer, Vega grew up in Dalton — about 90 minutes from Atlanta — after her family immigrated from Mexico to California and made their way to Georgia. Despite learning cooking techniques from her Mexican mother, Vega didn’t immediately connect with food. She attended Georgia Southern University for two years to study international law, but an internship at an Atlanta law firm, where she assisted on a murder case, gave her a chance to fall in love with the city.
Ten years later, Vega still hasn’t looked back.
“I used to come to Atlanta when I was young, but never actually got to really see the city the until then — just walking and biking everywhere,” Vega says. She put aside her plans to be a lawyer, but “the only way that I could stay was if I were to pay for my living.”
She tapped into that knowledge her mother gave her in the kitchen, and without formal training, grabbed service gigs at Midway Pub, Empire State South and the now-shuttered Tierra Restaurant. Around 2011, she stopped serving and began working in the kitchen, leading Sun in my Belly’s catering as well.
Her experiences include an interdisciplinary program at UGA and a pasta-making stint at No. 246, but she attributes her return to Empire State South in 2016 as “where all my discipline came.”
As she spent more time cooking, she made trips to Mexico City and Cuba to explore how others made food sustainable and how she could bring those practices back to Atlanta.
She says that the walk-in refrigerator at Empire State South put the sourcing of food into perspective for her. “Their walk-in was broken down by farms, varieties of radishes or carrots, and it was all just very specific,” she says. “I started asking, ‘Who are these farms?’ ‘What does this variety mean?’ I just remember one day being like, ‘Chef, I want to meet these people.’”
That’s how she made her relationships with local farmers from Grow Where You Are, Mayflor Farms, Mena’s Farm and Community Farmers Markets. Her plant-based dishes are inspired by Mexican cuisine, but turned on their head by creative use of ingredients from Georgia farms. Vega’s specialties include tostadas with pumpkin-seed salsa, poached egg and swiss chard; tamales filled with chicken, greens and sesame sauce; and fried rice filled with vibrant vegetables like beets.
Vega has occasionally used meat from local farms, but most of her dishes are vegetarian or vegan. “The idea is to create an entire relationship with the food system in our community,” Vega says. “If you look back at our history we didn’t always have pork or chickens. Really this is a proper interpretation of what Mexican cuisine should actually look like. Potatoes, cactus and tomato broth.”
“I don’t even know if people realize how important it is to actually know what is going on in our food system,” Vega says. “There are people in Cuba that are eating chicken from North Georgia.”
After a short stint of doing a supper club, El Palador, out of her beautiful house in Mechanicsville last year, as well as selling tamales at the East Atlanta Village Farmers Market, Vega has transitioned out to the community.
She’s doing lunch pop-ups every other week at bike apparel shop the Spindle in Studioplex and multiple-course dinners once a month at LottaFrutta — all driven by her social media. Diners follow her umbrella name, Chicomecóatl (chicomecoatl.com), for the goddess of corn.
At the Spindle, she serves snack-sized plates. “It’s little things that you would eat if you’re craving them, you know?” Vega says. “If you were in Mexico, you might go and pick up an empanada in the market, or you might grab a tamale. It isn’t a full-on experience of a meal.”
In the next few months, she’ll feed the students of Peace Prep Academy in the English Avenue Neighborhood until December, giving them access to vegan meals rich in fresh produce often not found in their neighborhoods, and teaching them more about where food comes from.
Early next year, she’ll head to Mexico for two months to study corn and its nutrients and apply that knowledge into a new business: a corner store-type place in Atlanta similar to Mexican bodegas. “I want to honor my grandparents. I want to have corn tortillas the way that we make them,” Vega says.
“If I can provide food, I can get my business rolling, and I can also later create socioeconomic models to shift some of my cuisine into other parts of the Latino community — then that’s big.”
Find Maricela Vega at the Spindle and LottaFrutta in Old Fourth Ward or at chicomecoatl.com. She posts her next dates, menus and new locations on her Instagram, @chicomecoatlien
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