It is easy to eat well at Paiche. The ensalada de quinoa arrives with a dollop of woodsy mushroom mousse surrounded by a sprinkling of crisp quinoa. Another version of the Andean grain shows up in a risotto studded with English peas and topped with charred pea tendrils. It’s all so delicate, you’d be forgiven for mistaking quinoa for a dainty farro offshoot, not the hardy high-altitude staple that it is. The pacu, a massive Amazonian fish, comes to the table as a slab of ribs resembling barbecued skate wings. You nibble on each juicy bone, the flesh coming off in big flakes shimmering with lime-miso sauce. Thin strips of pork neck remind you of the ones you might find skewered at the anticucho sidewalk grills popular in Lima, only these are adorned with a tangle of raw green onions, the whole basted beneath a crowning layer of the fermented Korean condiment known as gochujang. You half eat, half slurp as you devour.
Named after an endangered fish of the Amazon, Paiche marks the third restaurant in 40-year-old Ricardo Zarate’s growing stable. This one’s located in Marina del Rey on the bottom floor of a newish apartment building on Maxella Avenue across from a shopping complex with an Equinox gym, a Gelson’s market, and a large Tender Greens. Everything tends to be oversize in this recently developed area, and Paiche is no different. The patio wraps around the building, sheltered from the wind by one of those plastic covers you might see on a Paris sidewalk. Inside is a spacious dining room where Latino world music ricochets off the glossy wood of the tables, chandeliers resemble amber droplets, and plastic panes in shades of blue and green hanging from the rafters evoke something riverine. Order a pisco sour—its foamy egg white head as pliant as the creamy head on a pint of Murphy’s stout—and the barkeep will stencil an image of a fish skeleton on top, using bitters and cinnamon. The theme is set.
Zarate began his culinary exploration in 2009 when he opened a simple food stall called Mo-Chica in Mercado la Paloma, a sweatshop-turned-nonprofit-funded market south of downtown. His cooking was a full-on embrace of traditional Peruvian cuisine, stretching back to the country’s pre-Hispanic days. In his native Lima, Zarate learned to surf the swells between Peruvian culture and the nation’s sizable Japanese population. After training in London, he came to L.A. to open a satellite for Tetsuya Wakuda before landing at Wabi-Sabi in Venice. In fact, he was still there during Mo-Chica’s fledgling days. His ceviche, a bowl filled with chunks of sushi-grade fish, bulbous kernels of choclo (Andean corn), crunchy corn nuts called cancha, and strands of seaweed bathed in a fiery leche de tigre (citrus marinade) didn’t bind just the Peruvian to the Japanese but a distant past to the tingling present. The chef so overdelivered, he emerged a culinary hero.
In 2011, with business partners Stephane Bombet and Bill Chait, he launched Picca on the Westside. This time Zarate went big, serving $60 spice-rubbed prime rib and hiring mixologist-about-town Julian Cox to make the most of the liquor license, but his focus on Peru remained true. The locro de quinoa I had early on, a stewy mix loaded with cubes of spoon-soft pumpkin, was a vegetarian’s dream. Picca was another success, and a year later Mo-Chica was reborn as a casually stylish joint on a stretch of 7th Street that—a few doors from Bottega Louie and across from the whiskey bar Seven Grand—might be considered the midpoint of the new downtown.
If Mo-Chica represents Zarate’s essential idea, Picca proves that the bright integrity underlying it can be a building block for more restaurants: Bombet and Zarate are opening another venture, Blue Tavern in Santa Barbara. For now Paiche is the location most rooted in the everyday. Giving pride of place to a genuine anticucho grill in the open bar doesn’t preclude having a TV showing a muted Kings game at the bar. A restaurant that strives for a neighborhood vibe, it still has enough sheen to communicate it’s more than a local hangout. You can swing by on your way to the airport and order translucent kampachi slivers (presented on a block of pink salt) from the selection of sashimi, but to me the one-sheet menu’s most interesting offerings celebrate the variety of the Peruvian table.
It can be exciting to follow ingredients as they transform throughout the menu. You’ll find sweet potato filling the plump gnocchi barrels that loll in butter sauce, accentuated with the tang of huacatay, a wild marigold herb. You’ll also find the root vegetable grated into matchsticks, flash fried, and scattered over a lettuce wrap bulging with grilled paiche (Zarate’s is farm raised), a lick of fermented soy intensifying the pronounced nutty flavor of the fire-tinged fish.
Always intent on mining his heritage, Zarate sometimes adds lima beans (they got their name for a reason) to tacu-tacu, a homey combination of rice and ají peppers. Formed into small squares before being grilled, they become the foundation for spicy tuna. It’s similar to Katsu-ya’s crispy rice, only with a helping of Incan culture. The same blend of grains and tubers, saturated with a rich broth, provides the base for grilled paiche; the seco sauce, a kind of national braising jus spooned over it, is sharpened with a squiggle of huancaina sauce, which moms all around Peru make with saltines and feta.
To repeat ingredients throughout a menu is risky, though, and at points in a meal, what seemed like the creative consideration of a given element suddenly looks more like a corner-cutting go-to move for the kitchen. Not counting the sashimi or the vegetable sides, there are 39 dishes on Paiche’s menu. Without a little editing, the interplay between acidity and earthiness that can make Zarate’s cooking so special can also seem rote, a fail-safe formula of starch plus protein plus citrusy miso sauce, making some dishes hard to remember five minutes after you’ve eaten them. I wish such were the case with the tacu-tacu piled beneath the duck leg confit: The two have zero chemistry, but poor pairing isn’t the entire problem. The leg hasn’t undergone the requisite flavor-compressing hours curing in kosher salt and herbs before being poached slowly in duck fat. So it’s bland. And when I ask about the “ceviche stew” listed on the menu as part of the dish, I get noncommittal humming from the waiter. I don’t know what ceviche stew is, and neither does he.
Used in a marinade, ají electrifies the wagyu tiradito, but it’s the same ingredient that makes you splutter when eating the house salad. Even the quinoa can be inconsistent. When it’s the basis of the risotto with peas and charred pea tendrils, I’m reminded of how Zarate’s best cooking can be a mash note to the primal rhizomes, seeds, and grasses that he draws from a botanical ark. However, the cooking isn’t always at that level. A few weeks after ordering the mushroom quinoa salad, I order it again. This time it arrives clumped, as if it has spent way too much time in the fridge. The shimeji mushrooms and the handful of toasted quinoa don’t provide enough texture to salvage it.
Missteps are possible in any kitchen, of course, especially in one that’s open 12 hours a day, seven days a week. What worries me is that they’re not limited to just one of Zarate’s restaurants. A few months ago at Picca, the locro de quinoa—that pumpkin, quinoa, and egg broth—had devolved into a pasty mass. More recently I stopped by Mo-Chica downtown. The carapulcra, a stew of sun-dried potatoes served with morsels of pork belly, was as intense as a hearth-cooked fagioli soup. But the ceviche was all wrong: The fish tasted muddy, like tilapia, and the corn—served as a disk of cob—was difficult to handle.
I hope that Zarate isn’t overextending himself. I didn’t see him during my four visits to Paiche, and it certainly catches my ear when the waitress casually says, “Ricardo may be in tonight.” In such a new operation, when the kitchen is finding its rhythm and trying to nail down recipes so there’s as little variation as possible, you’d think he would be. Multiple restaurants is what every chef strives for, but expansion shouldn’t lead to a drop in quality. It’s not as if the gossamer-light quiche at Bouchon is any different when Thomas Keller pays a visit.
The dessert of purple corn raspadilla, a rectangular plate bearing a garnish of diced green apples, is supposed to have the consistency of the flavored ice that street vendors grate on summer days in Peru. But it’s prepared so far in advance that by the time the vessel is pulled from the freezer and brought to the table, trying to get a spoonful is like scraping a windshield in a Michigan December. The result is a lot better when Paiche aims for what’s more familiar—and forgoes the drum roll—with the bite-size churros and a sweet dipping sauce. Light and golden, they can stand on their own, but the kitchen makes the sauce with condensed milk and lucuma, a common subtropical fruit (Goya Foods sells it as frozen concentrate) that takes us beyond the known flavor wheel. It would be lush if it weren’t so earthy; slightly thick on the tongue, akin to papaya but without the equatorial abundance, it is known and not.
This is exactly the sort of experience that can make eating at one of Zarate’s restaurants so pleasantly startling. I still remember my first transcendent taste of the ceviche at Mercado la Paloma. In those days Zarate was only getting started, a smiling, T-shirted guy whose pass-through window looked onto a few Formica tables with paper cutouts strung overhead. Today he is a culinary star (embraced by the national press, spokesperson for Coca-Cola in Peru). And rightly so. At their best Zarate’s restaurants transport us to a different world; he just needs to figure out how to keep us there for the entire meal.
13488 Maxella Ave., Marina del Rey
Best dishes: Paiche lettuce wrap; tamalito verde; crispy tuna, quail, and pacu ribs (all from the anticucho grill); wagyu tiradito; quinoa con alverjitas; churros
Drinks: Excellent cocktail program; Spanish and Latin American wines
Atmosphere: Convivial when full
Noise level: Loud
Kid friendly? If they’re curious eaters
Price range: $7 (assorted pickles) to $38 (sudado de pescado)
Hours: Daily, 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m.
Parking: Free lot
Credit cards: All major