When I first met Maricela Vega of Chicomecóatl, she was selling late-night tamales outside of MJQ during a Cholateca night (the best Latin dancing in Atlanta, by the way). Since then, trying to keep up with her on Instagram has been dizzying. “I’ve been in a sea of ideas. I feel like I’m navigating them now,” she told me. Vega’s food has since been cropping up all over—she’s hosted a tamale pop-up at the Creature Comforts brewery in Athens and she regularly serves creative, complex dishes at the Spindle in Old Fourth Ward that produce swoon-worthy Instagram photos. (One recent example: A bright purple sope that incorporated hibiscus, coriander sour cream, onion, and squash blossom.) With her pop-ups, Vega brings a unique perspective to cooking in Atlanta.
“I want to create food spaces where there is a deliciously beautiful, living interpretation of modern Mexican cuisine,” she says. Her recipes are inspired by the cuisine of her Mexican ancestors—traditions she hopes to keep alive—but most of her dishes are entirely plant-based. “I modernize my food by creating relationships with Atlanta-based growers,” she explains. “This allows room for constant creativity, and it intersects with my own roots: Southern agriculture with Mexican heritage.”
Although Vega was born in Orange County, California, she grew up in Dalton, Georgia. Her family originally came from a small village in Guanajuato, Mexico, where they were farmers. They moved to California in the 1980s—”when everything was bad in Mexico, a terrible time,” Vega says—and later bought a home in North Georgia. Vega went to college for two years at Georgia Southern University, studying international law, but after a criminal justice internship in Atlanta, she took a break from law and never bounced back.
That break, however, propelled Vega to seek work as a chef, even though she had never worked professionally in a kitchen, only learning techniques from her mother. First, she cooked at now-closed Tierra restaurant, then at Midway Pub and Empire State South. Still interested in farming and justice, she made trips to Cuba and Mexico City to study their foodways and related politics.
During one trip to Mexico, she visited her uncle on the farm he’d recently taken over from her grandfather. “The house there was centered to look out at the mesa, and I went up to the rooftop and just sat,” Vega explains. “I just remember staring at [the mesa] and thinking, ‘What am I’m going to do [with my life]? What am I going to do?’ I’d already decided that I when I went home to Atlanta, I was going to quit my job. I was like, “F— it. I’m going to just [make tamales] and see where it takes me.”
Why tamales? “They’re nostalgic, and I cook based off diaspora,” Vega says, noting that when she was a child, her mother would make pork tamales with salsa verde and pozole every year for Vega’s birthday. “As a kid growing up assimilating to both American and Mexican culture in the South, I struggled to identify with who I was. But in the past five years, I’ve rediscovered a lost identity: my Mexican roots.” And she felt there was a real market in Atlanta for true Mexican cuisine.
She started selling tamales under the name, “Chicomecóatl.” (Besides the obvious “ATL” pun, the name is a tribute to the Aztec goddess of agriculture and maíz.) She became best known for her El Palador pop-up dinners, which were hosted in her home and featured a sit-down tasting menu of unique plant-based dishes. Think Mexican classics, such as mole, but formulated with entirely different ingredients, many sourced locally from farmer friends such as Grow Where You Are, Mayflor Farms, Mena’s Farm, and Community Farmers Markets. She’s also been known to incorporate foraged ingredients, such as the goldenrod she turned into a drink at one El Palador dinner. Over the past few months, she’s carved out more consistent places for fans to try her food, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Her first “regular” gig was at the Spindle, a biking apparel shop in Old Fourth Ward’s Studioplex that is fast becoming a testing ground for many new chefs. Vega currently serves an a la carte menu featuring three to four dishes there every other week.
Much like the Aztec goddess whose name she sports, Vega ultimately wants to provide for her community. “[My] intention is to provide people with access to nutritious food, and working with a like-minded community has allowed me to work toward that goal,” she says. Further down the road, Vega has big dreams for her self-described “social enterprise.” Rather than open her own restaurant, she hopes to open a neighborhood bodega that “houses an assortment of diverse goods created by people of color,” along with fresh produce from local farmers and, perhaps, freshly milled corn, a cornerstone of much of Latin American cooking.
“I want to keep producing food that is made the right way,” she says. “And then I want to create programs where we teach people how to cook and [grow food in a] garden. Ultimately, food accessibility is only going to come from within the community.”
Beyond catching her biweekly Spindle pop-ups, you can also try Vega’s food at LottaFrutta, where she’ll host a dinner dubbed “La Casita” one Sunday per month until the end of this fall. The $65 by-reservation-only dinner (you can sign-up by emailing Vega) features five courses and two non-alcoholic drinks such as horchata or agua frescas. (It’s also BYOB.) And her dizzying schedule never stops: Vega is also collaborating with MaituFoods this fall to produce vegan school meals for underprivileged pre-school students. At the end of the year, she plans to travel to Oaxaca, Baja California, and Mexico City to further her education on maíz, moles, and mezcal. And she plans to host a couple of mezcal and maíz dinners in the fall lay the groundwork for projects she’s planning in 2019.