8Arm’s Maricela Vega is hosting a dinner to help restore the culture of the tortilla

The chef has big plans to improve the city’s masa game

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8Arm review
Chef Maricela Vega is known for her masa-making skills and her sense of food justice.

Photograph by Alex Martinez

It’s not every day that you can find in Atlanta a five-course, plant-based meal that weds the techniques and ingredients of ancient and modern Mexico. But you can on Monday.

As part of her effort to spread awareness of her native cuisine—and to raise funds for a masa-making machine and, eventually, a brick-and-mortar shop that sells fresh, heirloom masa and tortillas—8Arm chef Maricela Vega will be preparing a dinner on September 16 with courses such as an eggplant tostada with frijoles guisados in chile negro and a salad of “many greens,” king trumpet mushrooms, serrano honey, and pumpkinseed oil.

“It is a complete expression of the current seasonality and how I can relate that to dishes that spark memories from my childhood,” Vega said a few days before the dinner, picking through the squash blossoms that a local farmer had just dropped off (and that will show up in a “quesadilla” at the Monday dinner). “You will hardly ever find that on the menu at 8Arm.”

Vega was fresh off a trip to New York for its Corn Symposium, which brings together people devoted to restoring, importing, and growing heirloom corn. “It was really nice to be there with people who understand what you’re trying to do,” Vega says. “It reinforces that there can be a marketplace for that.”

A marketplace is what she’s trying to build here: specifically, a brick-and-mortar retail masa shop and tortilleria on Buford Highway. She wants to offer an alternative to tortillas made with commercially produced corn flour, which she says has “zero nutrients and no flavor at all. You can’t even taste the kernel.”

The trip to New York included a visit to mom-and-pop shop Tortilleria Nixtamal in Queens. “That was the first store—it’s also a mini restaurant now—that started grinding corn in New York,” she says. “Of course, this was a while ago. Now, they would have been fine if they opened up in the city. But they chose that area because it has a rich population of Latinos.”

Vega wants to work with Georgia farmers to grow heirloom corn varieties, so that her masa can be predominantly locally sourced (with the remainder imported from Oaxaca, Mexico). She intends to start making masa at a “beta shop” inside 8Arm, and plans to travel to Oaxaca, Mexico City, and the Yucatan to figure out how the locals create and use specially carved stones on which to cook differently textured tortillas. But first she needs a proper machine, which will be at least $10,000 in order to produce the 500 pounds of masa per week she hopes to yield.

“I want to just get an entire perspective of what it means to run that business so that people will understand how important it is,” she says. “It’s really important that we restore the culture of the tortilla.”

Tickets for the five-course dinner will be available for purchase until Monday morning; the $100 covers tax, gratuity, and beverages, including samplings from women-run Yola Mezcal and wild sumac and sorghum wine from Athens-based Cherokee Moon Mixology.

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