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A Mini Mexican Restaurant Serves Up Culture, Cooperation For Kids

A woman with brown skin and dark hair in a ponytail sits behind a counter in front of an empty coffee cup and plate full of fake tortilla chips made out of cloth. A little girl with the same color skin and hair stands next to her, about to put more fake food onto her plate.
Carmel Gonzalez, 4, serves fake chilaquiles to her mother, Gladys, at the kid-sized replica of the restaurant Pocha LA at Pretend City Children's Museum in Irvine.
(Jill Replogle
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A new restaurant opened in Irvine to celebrate Central America and Mexico's Independence Days. Well, to be precise, a miniature restaurant.

The venue, Pocha, was abuzz with activity leading up to the lunch hour. Plates were piled high with chilaquiles, eggs, beans and tacos. Some of those plates ended up on the floor but were quickly picked up by the servers.

Four-year-old Carmel Gonzalez was taking orders.

"Mom, what would you like to drink?" she asked.

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"I would like horchata," her mother, Gladys, said.

Here at Pocha, an interactive exhibit at Pretend City Children's Museum in Irvine, all of the food items are inedible and made of plastic, rubber and cloth. The exhibit is a shrunk-down version of Claire Risoli's restaurant Pocha LA in Highland Park. 

The museum proposed the project to Risoli and then dined at her restaurant to get ideas for recreating it for kids.

"I love the idea of being able to teach diversity and culture, inclusion and equality through food," Risoli said at the opening of the exhibit on Friday.

A boy in a blue shirt and another boy in a white chef's hat and white apron lean next to a warming table, pretending to plate up food.
The kitchen at the kid-sized version of Pocha LA includes a warming table where kids can pretend to plate up food.
(Jill Replogle

That's the idea behind the restaurant at Pretend City, which changes periodically to showcase food from different cultures (the previous restaurant theme was Korean barbecue).

About Those Roots

Pocha, or the male pocho, is a sometimes derogatory term for Mexican Americans deemed to have forgotten their roots, like by not knowing Spanish. But Risoli has come to embrace her pocha identity.

"I realized we're all pocho, we're all something else, we all came from somewhere else or our family did," she said. "So it's just really learning to be who you are, and owning it, and having fun with it."

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Besides learning about the many cultures that make up Orange County, Pretend City's Chief Operating Officer Maria Tinajero-Dowdle said playing at the fake restaurant helps teach kids cooperation.

"You see kids that don't even know each other and it's like someone's taking the order, someone's cooking, someone's like serving the other person's parent," she said.  

In the crowded dining room, Carmel’s brother Thomas, 3, served a heaping plate of what looked like everything on the menu to their dad, Eduardo. He said they love to pretend that they're cooking and serving food.

An Asian man in a white shirt stands smiling with his arms on the shoulders of a 4-year-old Asian girl, who is also smiling. She wears a blue apron and has a plate full of fake food in her hands.
Albert Yoo and his daughter Charlotte, 4, at the café in Pretend City Children's Museum.
(Jill Replogle

"I think pretending that they're doing that, it reminds them of their parents and grandmothers," he said.

How To Visit

The mini Pocha restaurant at Pretend City Children's Museum will be open through spring 2023.

29 Hubble, Irvine, CA 92618
(near Irvine Spectrum Center)

Wednesday through Sunday
10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.

$19.95 (children under 1 years old are free)
Reduced price for seniors, military and families presenting their EBT card

More details on how to visit are available on the museum’s website.

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