PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEINSolterito, a salad of southern Peru, at Mo-Chica
At first, I couldn't quite grasp what all the hype was about. Mo-Chica, in its original location, was an L.A. phenomenon. I'd missed eating there (it closed in May) and, judging from an initial visit to the new location, I just couldn't quite get the accolades, the adoration.
A friend tried to explain. "The original Mo-Chica felt like a revelation," she said. "But part of it was because it was in this little stall, out of the way. It was street food, but it was so much more than that."
The explanation seemed too simple. Yes, I could see how chef Ricardo Zarate's elevated Peruvian cooking might be somewhat stunning if you stumbled upon it at a stall in a warehouse food court such as Mercado la Paloma, where the original Mo-Chica lived. But citywide adulation, an upscale spinoff (Picca) and a Best New Chef in America award from Food & Wine? These things did not jibe with my first experience of the new Mo-Chica, which is decidedly not an unexpected stall in a funky marketplace.
Instead, the downtown restaurant, which opened a week after the old location closed, feels like a hot spot with design elements meant to conjure and nod to a street stall. In the front room, along one side, hand-scrawled signs are strung up on colorful squares of paper above the glassed-in kitchen; in the back room, the red walls are decorated with artist Kozem's graffiti lettering of the restaurant's name, as well as a streetware-clad alpaca wielding a spray paint can. There's a lot of concrete — the columns, the floors — and it's all very industrial and very, very loud.
At a tiny bar directly across from the front door, female bartenders in tight spousal-abuse tank tops shake drinks vigorously. The drinks they produce were undoubtedly the highlight of that first visit — Tha Doggfather, Mo-Chica's take on a Pisco sour, an awesome balance of creamy and tart; the Oaxacalifornia Love, one of the best mezcal drinks around, with the sweet pineapple and spicy rocoto peppers acting as angel and devil on the shoulders of the smoky liquor.
But the rest of that meal was perplexing. The flavors surrounding the sea bass ceviche sang all the high notes of citrus, chili and onion. But the fish itself tasted muddy. Likewise, the Spanish mackerel came bathed in an amarillo pepper and ginger sauce that not only was yellow but also tasted yellow. The mackerel, however, was as fishy as mackerel gets — too much for this mackerel lover.
The Cau Cau, a tripe stew, came in a cumin-heavy sauce that tasted a lot like a mellow, warming curry, but it seemed to be trying to mask the tripe. For diners who want to eat tripe without tasting tripe, this dish will give you the cred without the experience, but I prefer something a little deeper, something that complements that rich, musky flavor rather than obscures it.
And speaking of obfuscation, the much-lauded alpaca and lamb burger was so heavily seasoned and so salty, barely any other flavor came through at all. It tasted like a highly spiced sausage, the ground meat acting as a conduit for flavor rather than a bearer of flavor itself. I went in not knowing what alpaca tastes like and finished still not knowing.
There were other disappointments during that first meal. A bottle of wine cost $44, tasted like $10 and, upon further investigation, turned out to be $10, retail.
But nothing was as perplexing as all that hype contrasted with the underwhelming food on the plate.
Was it an off night? Did I order poorly? Is everyone completely insane, and this place is just not that good?
The answer turned out to be possibly No. 1, with a little of 2 thrown in. But my subsequent visits, I'm happy to report, ruled out No. 3 completely.
If the alpaca had tasted mostly like salt and spice in the burger, it showed its true nature another night in the estofado, or stew, served over delicate, slippery tagliatelle, topped with a fried egg. The meat had a mellow, dusky, delicate flavor: like shredded lamb but lighter, like shredded rabbit but deeper. Along with the pasta and egg and aji amarillo sauce, the whole thing was like the best rustic Italian cooking but with a wild tropical twist.
The ceviche mixto, with halibut, prawns, scallops and squid, had none of the muddy-tasting issues of the sea bass. A hunk of sweet potato added a grounding element to the dish's bracing, lime-saturated personality.
Mo-Chica serves paiche, a huge Amazonian fish that's rarely seen on menus in the United States (in part because it's highly endangered — Mo-Chica's is sustainably farmed). I found it to be tough and not really worth the effort. The pan con tuna is basically a big, mushy, spicy tuna roll on toast — fine if you love spicy tuna rolls, a little gaudy if you don't.
But the stews and potato dishes can be genuinely soul-nourishing. Some of this extreme comfort food is rooted firmly in Peruvian cuisine and tradition: the aji de gallina a loyal but upgraded version of the creamy, piquant Peruvian chicken stew, with waxy confit pee-wee potatoes and adorable little boiled quail eggs dotting the bowl.
Some dishes seem to spring directly from the imagination and cross-cultural pollination of Zarate's imagination: The Quinotto, or quinoa risotto, is an obviously Italian-inspired creation with wild mushrooms and Parmesan and parsley-infused oil, and I'll bet a squirt of truffle oil as well.
Speaking of cross-cultural, I thought I detected truffle oil in the oxtail dish over trigo de mote, or a kind of wheat porridge. How else to explain that dish's intensity of savory flavor, and almost unworldly pow of meaty, brothy richness? The restaurant says no such crutch is employed, in which case this dish is a true wonder.
I still have a few quibbles with Mo- Chica. The wine is overpriced and underwhelming, qualitywise — stick to cocktails. I'm still not a fan of that alpaca burger. And, obviously, it's possible to have an entire meal at Mo-Chica that falls short of expectations.
But on the right night, with the right dishes, Mo-Chica is serving up loud, raucous, colorful food in a loud, colorful, raucous room that celebrates Peru, Los Angeles and the exceedingly fun intermingling of the two.
MO-CHICA | 514 W. Seventh St., dwntwn. | (213) 622- 3744 | mo-chica.com | Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5 p.m.-mid. | Small plates, $7-$18 | Full bar | Reservations recommended | Street parking; $6.50 valet beginning at 7 p.m.
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