Photograph by Jessica Boone
So I am not going to let myself get overly excited about Mo-Chica, a Peruvian restaurant located in a food court south of downtown. I’m not—though the chef has taken a complicated route to arrive at his unique style, and the kitchen recasts an ancient cuisine in a contemporary light. Named for the language of a pre-Incan civilization, the venture has a menu filled with the quinoa and barley, the beans, the carefully calibrated peppers, and the multitude of corn varieties that can make Peruvian food a strong link to a bygone culture. Chef Ricardo Zarate, who spent 12 years working in London’s best sushi restaurants, captures this essential quality with his fluency in a sophisticated Japanese style. Mo-Chica must be the only restaurant on earth that alludes to pre-Andean civilization in which umami plays a role.
Mo-Chica is anything but hip. Its counter runs along a wall of Mercado la Paloma, a sweatshop turned market that was founded in 2001 by the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation and the charismatic Sister Diane Donohue. Neither as touristy as Olvera Street nor as lively as El Mercadito in Boyle Heights, the Mercado draws its share of professors and doctors from nearby USC while never losing sight of its function as a gathering place and economic engine for the working-class residents of the Figueroa corridor.
Things hum inside the block-long building, which is decorated with colorful Mexican streamers; the atmosphere embraces the middle ground between the requirements of the everyday and those of a special occasion. There’s a stall that sells brightly painted figurines, another that makes flower arrangements for quinceañeras, a third with a busy seamstress. The seven food counters sprinkled around the central seating area range from a Persian spot that makes terrific rice dishes to Chichen Itza, a well-regarded Yucatecan joint. Down to the toasty crust of the torta at the Oaxacan juice and sandwich bar, these businesses are marked by professional snap.
Mo-Chica stands right by the front door. It doesn’t share the neon touches or vivid facades of the neighboring stalls; many of the elements of its design appear to be drawn from distant spheres of L.A. Enough wood and dark tones frame the compact space to suggest an indigenous motivation, in the manner of the newer tofu hot-pot places in Koreatown. The menu is posted on a large blackboard (together with Mo-Chica’s Twitter and Facebook addresses)—the kind you might see in a Westside brasserie listing the day’s artisanal salumi. There’s the potential for the restaurant to seem a little too with-it amid the earnestness of the Mercado. But if Mo-Chica’s modesty is not immediately apparent, it is nonetheless real. The kitchen is hidden behind a pass-through window; you order at the register, get a number, and nab a table while you wait for your food. Instead of incongruity, what comes across is a certain insouciance about the surroundings: This is the restaurant Zarate has long dreamed of, and he is set on implementing it, whatever the setting might be.
Zarate learned about Japanese food not in his native Lima, where there is a sizable Japanese population, but in England. At 19, after graduating from the technical college where he studied cooking, Zarate moved to London and got a job at the Kings Road Benihana, then landed at Aykoku Kaku, the city’s first Japanese restaurant. Many of the chefs had been there for 30 years and saw in this young man someone to whom they could pass their hard-earned knowledge. Eventually he went to work for Tetsuya Wakuda, an esteemed chef from Sydney. Zarate arrived in Los Angeles five years ago to help Wakuda open a restaurant, but the economic tremors had already started (restaurant planning is often where such early tremors are felt). The project fell through; Zarate stuck around for the weather and the Latino culture. He worked downtown as chef at Sai Sai on the ground floor of the Biltmore for a year before he wound up at Wabi-Sabi in Venice. Then he heard about a vacancy at the Mercado through a friend, and Mo-Chica opened in May.
The menu is short and focused: four appetizers, seven main courses, nothing above $13. Clarity of flavor is the animating principle. Zarate has a proper Peruvian fascination with potatoes (the tuber originally came from the Andean Highlands) and uses them for two of the appetizers. The papa a la Huancaina is a classic dish in which warm potatoes are bathed in a sauce of feta (replacing the traditional queso fresco), aji amarillo chile, crackers, and a bit of milk. In Lima, causa, a kind of stacked salad, is scooped out of trays. Zarate’s presentation is a molded tower whose layers change daily. He might use a chicken salad or raw fish, but for each version it is the potato—jolted by a lick of huacatay, a black mint relish—that communicates the dish’s quotidian roots.
Zarate approaches quinoa, the seed of a tall crop plant cultivated for millennia in the Andes, with a native’s delight. For a creamy appetizer, he folds it into diced vegetables and a luxuriously moist dressing. In the quinotto, he prepares it almost like a risotto, mixing the quinoa with a roasted chicken stock and sautéed wild mushrooms before adding a swirl of crème fraîche. He is equally adept with dishes of Spanish ancestry. The arroz con mariscos is a satisfying stew of tomato-laced rice studded with shrimp. For the lomo saltado, he sears beef fillet strips with onions and tomatoes before finishing the dish with a concoction that combines red wine vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic. The seco de cordero is a supremely tender braised lamb shank that sits on brothy canario beans (slightly larger than cannellini). The only entrée I don’t much care for is the aji de gallina. Traditional as it might be to serve shredded chicken under a sauce of bread crumbs and pounded walnuts, it lacks the intensity of the other dishes.
Peruvian restaurants are becoming some-thing of a trend. Miami is a veritable nuevo peruano spawning ground. In Philadelphia, a new venture called Chifa explores the influence Chinese immigrants had on Peru’s cooking. In San Francisco, there’s even a Mochica. Zarate’s place is different. It is neither trying to explore the influence of a particular community on Peruvian food, nor is it attempting a contemporary slant on tradition. Mo-Chica is that rare restaurant where one nation’s aesthetic becomes the perfect conduit for another nation’s food. Few Japanese ingredients are on Mo-Chica’s menu—no yuzu here—but the imprint is everywhere. It is discernible in the thatch of thin red onions that brightens the lamb shank, the acidity that sharpens the lomo saltado, the restraint of the papa a la Huancaina, and the steady drumbeat of heat that can run throughout a meal.
Zarate’s mastery of Japanese cooking reaches a high point in a ceviche that is infused with elements of sushi without losing the ladled generosity of the Peruvian classic. What differentiates Peruvian ceviche—the kind enjoyed in the bustling storefront cevicherías, the market counters, the bus depot carretas, the stalls that cluster around office buildings in Lima—is a brief marinating time. This keeps the fish from becoming “cooked,” the pale and mushy fate of filleted slices that have sat too long in lemon or lime. Zarate goes further. He barely marinates the fish, instead taking sushi-grade loins, cutting them thickly so that they retain their integrity, and serving them in a chile-stoked jumble with strands of seaweed and a slew of mountainy ingredients such as camote squash and the kernels of two varieties of corn: Chocolo, a marble-size, hominy-like pellet, adds a burst of juice, while the drier, crackling cancha brings together the fusion of flavors with its toasted notes. Modern? Ancient? Hard to tell. Some ceviches are just the thing for a hangover; this one succeeds at a deeper level, stripping away the centuries and linking you directly to a country’s origins.
You can end the meal with carob flan—the only dessert at Mo-Chica—but I find it cloying after such deftly prepared food. (I prefer to end with a nieve de tuna, a scoop of ice flavored with cactus pear flesh, from the nearby Oaxacan counter. ) Still, that it is the sole dessert here points to the bare-bones nature of Mo-Chica. The galley kitchen, where a T-shirted Zarate can be seen working at lunch (before rushing off to Wabi-Sabi), doesn’t have room for anything like a dessert station. There is no beer, wine, or pisco cocktails to complicate ordering. There isn’t even an atmosphere to speak of except for the joyful activity of the market itself. What Mo-Chica does offer—and the moment rarely lasts long in restaurants—is the unimpeded view of a talent and his food.