In Los Angeles, you can easily try cochinita pibil, tamales, tlayudas and more in the span of an evening. Bring your appetite, and the city delivers.
But until recently, the city lacked a formal space dedicated to exploring the rich history of these dishes. That changed with the opening of LA Plaza Cocina, billed as Los Angeles’ first museum dedicated to Mexican cuisine.
Calling it a “museum” is not enough to grasp the mission of space. In addition to exhibitions, LA Plaza Cocina, which opened in February, will host cooking classes, demonstrations and cultural events.
For the team behind LA Plaza Cocina, the ultimate goal is to expand and showcase people’s knowledge of Mexican cuisine.
“It’s more than tacos,” says Ximena Martin, one of LA Plaza Cocina’s curators and director of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes. ” Each region [of Mexico] should be celebrated and recognized.
LA Plaza Cocina is part of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a downtown Los Angeles institution that has explored Mexican, Mexican-American, and Latino culture and identity through exhibitions and educational events since 2011. Food was often part of these events. , but the staff wanted to see what would happen if they could dedicate an entire space to the study of Mexican cuisine.
Martin has teamed up with longtime collaborator Maite Gómez-Rejón, food historian and creator of ArtBites, which hosts art and history-focused cooking classes and tastings, to bring to life the first space exhibition.
LA Plaza Cocina’s first exhibit is Maize: Past, Present and Future, dedicated to an ingredient that is a staple in many Mexican dishes. The exhibit includes kitchen utensils, artifacts, photographs and cookbooks, including an 1883 edition of Nuevo Cocinero Mexicano: en Forma de Diccionario, considered the oldest cookbook on Mexican cuisine. Some of the objects included are from Mixtec and Zapotec cultures or places such as Colima, each crucial to the process of using corn in food.
Abelardo de la Peña Jr, director of marketing and communications at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, says the organization first discussed the idea of the museum five years ago. There was a space reserved for the museum, he explains, as part of the partnership between LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, developer Trammell Crow Co, Los Angeles County and the Cesar Chavez Foundation.
For Gómez-Rejón and Martin, the goal of this first exhibition is to explore the possibilities of having this larger place, by weaving kitchen tools and techniques alongside wall images and texts. Right in front of the Maize exhibit, you can see a large comal — a griddle-like tool used to heat tortillas, spices and more — that “is so essential for preparing and cooking Mexican food,” a said Martin.
The show ultimately shows how maize became a global phenomenon, even as the 16th-century Spaniards tried to stop the crop from thriving. Today, corn is produced everywhere, from China to Argentina to Canada.
And it’s not just tortillas – there’s so much more to corn, and the exhibit highlights tools that have been used for many generations. The pichancha, for example, is “a clay strainer used during the nixtamalization process to strain the corn kernels from the nejayote (water mixed with lime),” the exhibit explains.
Overall, the space aims to work with chefs and food experts from Los Angeles and around the world, emphasizing the importance of indigenous and Afro-Mexican cuisine.
“How lucky are we as the melting pot of Los Angeles, all these immigrants that we have the opportunity to put them first and give them their place and speak their truths and also show us great techniques of kitchen,” Martin mentioned.
The next exhibition will focus on grandmothers, cooking and oral history. The museum hopes to showcase not only professional chefs, but also home cooks and other cooking enthusiasts. The layout of the space makes the experience richer, Martin and Gómez-Rejón said. Visitors can also take a peek at the space’s full kitchen, where cooking classes will take place.
“In my usual museum classes, we would visit the exhibit and then cook,” says Gómez-Rejón. “Now to have that [kitchen] right there you could literally be like ‘look over there and notice the metate or notice the pichancha’… in all the years I’ve been doing this it’s not something I’ve ever experienced.
Visitors can view the exhibits for free or pay a fee to attend a cooking class for 16 people. They can also browse the museum shop, LA Tiendita, which offers handpicked cookbooks. The museum has also digitized materials from the inaugural exhibition and will record and broadcast its workshops, creating an archive, as well as recipes, accessible to those who cannot visit in person.
It all comes down to a deep appreciation of Mexican cuisine, something akin to Gómez-Rejón. When asked what her favorite corn dish was, she said, “I just like a good corn tortilla. If you just have really good corn, nixtamalized corn, you’re golden.