LA Plaza Cocina Is the Mexican Food Museum of Your Dreams
The new Downtown museum has exhibits, classes, and a store all focused on the history of Mexican cuisine and culture.
The stretch of Spring Street between the 101 and Cesar Chavez Avenue looks a whole lot different today than it did just a few short years ago—where there used to be two largely unused parking lots, there is now LA Plaza Village, four colorful, mixed-use buildings that opened in 2019, with more than 350 apartments, ground-floor retail space, and four large murals. But that’s not an unfamiliar sight around LA; there are plenty of trendy apartment buildings going up all the time. The exciting part is tucked into a courtyard in the southeast corner of the complex, facing Spring but inconspicuous against the chaos of the brightly painted apartments and the nearby freeway — LA Plaza Cocina, a newly opened museum dedicated to the history and culture of Mexican food.
LA Cocina opened in February with an exhibit called “Maize: Past, Present, and Future,” a collection of artifacts, photographs, and text all about the importance of corn. Why start with corn? According to Ximena Martin, LA Cocina’s Director of Programs and Culinary Arts, it was nixtamalization—a method of processing corn with lime, which makes corn both more nutritious and more malleable—that allowed the Aztec and Mayan empires to flourish, providing the basis for civilization. As Martin puts it, “This very simple grain produced amazing empires.”
The gallery itself is a small space, but it is packed with artifacts and information, thanks also to co-curation by culinary historian Maite Gomez-Rejón. A stroll through the exhibit reveals tools for grinding and processing corn that have been in use for centuries, like metates, oloteras, and millstones. There are also statues, urns, and effigies from Oaxaca and Colima, celebrating the nixtamalization process and Pitao Cozobi, a Zapotec god of abundance and fields of maize. There are cookbooks and gorgeous photographs and, most importantly, a case containing several different varieties of corn kernels, separated by color, size, and state of origin.
The “Maize” exhibit is wrapping up its run at LA Cocina, but a new one is set to replace it very soon. Details are still being finalized, but it will be a collaboration with USC professor Sarah Portnoy and her students, with a focus on grandmothers—matriarchs from Indigenous communities, Mexican communities, and Mexican-American communities. There will be photographs, recipes, and a collection of meaningful culinary objects, all of them from different women.
“Objects tell stories,” Martin says, “It’s a work of art, that spoon that has created so many things.”
The exhibitions are only a piece of LA Cocina, though. The space also has a full kitchen, set up facing the room like a stage—perfect for the next thing coming down the pipe, cooking classes starting in June. Those will be divided into three general groups: the first is “Hecho con Amor,” a chef-driven series featuring LA-based, Mexican and Mexican-American chefs like Gilberto Cetina of Holbox and Jocelyn Ramirez of Todo Verde. Then there will be “Sabor A,” a series of deep dives into specific regions like Oaxaca and Jalisco. And finally they will have “Prácticas y Pruebas,” a series of informational talks and lectures followed by tastings of the foods discussed.
Many of these food celebrations will be timed to specific events on the Mexican calendar. Martin is particularly excited about the upcoming fresh corn season, and they’re planning a class based around uchepos, a kind of sweet corn tamal specific to Michoacan’s corn harvest festivals.
The other component of LA Cocina is LA Cocina Tiendita, the museum store. The store stocks a wide variety of artisanal Mexican and Mexican-American products like spices, cookbooks from local chefs like Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu, hand-blown glass pitchers, and chef-grade masa flour from Masienda. These cookbooks and products are a way to support the museum, of course, but they’re also an extension of their educational process, a way for Angelenos to bring a bit of Mexican culture and culinary history home with them.