The first time I visited Lima, not long after the capture of guerrilla leader Abimael Guzmán, the capital was still naked of tourists and businessmen, the grand Hotel Bolívar near downtown was as empty as the hotel in The Shining, and beat policemen, nervous under the best of circumstances, dandled their automatic weapons as if they were sick infants on the way to the emergency room.
At such times, when a country is trying to get back to normal life, there is nothing for an outsider to do but eat ceviche, drink bottles of Cusqueña and try to search out the few anticucho vendors whose grilled skewers of beef heart still scented the street corners. Peruvian ceviche, tart with citrus, is one of the greatest raw-seafood preparations in the world, a dish that ranks with crudo and sushi in inspiration.
On one of my walks to a cevicheria, my path was suddenly blocked by a tiny sedan with a little cherry of a red light on top, a bulby police car that looked like something out of Roger Rabbit, and the two police officers gestured for me to get in. It was not a pleasant ride. They yelled at me in Spanish, and laughed when I told them I was just going for ceviche. The one in the passenger seat pulled out a pistol, pointed it at my head and whispered, “Boom.” They drove me by a crumbling prison, slowing down so that I could see it well. And when they finally got tired of me — they figured out I wasn’t a terrorist or a drug dealer — they patted me down, took exactly $200 from my money belt and let me out in front of what they said was a much better ceviche restaurant than the one I had been trying to walk to. It was the best ceviche I ever had in my life.
I bring this up because the ceviche at Mo-Chica, a brand-new Peruvian restaurant in the Mercado La Paloma complex south of downtown, may be the best ceviche I have had since that day: cubes of sushi-quality tuna in a thick vinegar emulsion sharp with chile, soft and tart and brutally spicy all at once, served with slivered red onion, a half-ear of giant-kerneled corn and a soft chunk of sweet potato. Since Nobu Matsuhisa blew into town 20-odd years ago, high-quality Peruvian seafood has not been hard to find in Los Angeles, but this was somehow — earthier, more sensual, more Peruvian, speaking as much of the mountains as of the sea.
Ricardo Zarate, the chef-proprietor of Mo-Chica, is a Lima native who has spent most of his adult life cooking in high-end Japanese restaurants, at a well-regarded modernized izakaya called Zuma in London and as the executive chef at Wabi-Sabi in Venice, which was a favorite of my predecessor at the Weekly, Michelle Huneven. He knows his way around the big Japanese seafood wholesalers downtown; he knows his way around a fish.
Mercado La Paloma is a complex a couple miles south of downtown, a vast warehouse remodeled into something resembling the communal marketplace of a midsize Mexican town, with stalls selling Oaxacan crafts, freshly baked bollilos, hand-embroidered dresses and what looks like schoolbooks designed for Yucatecan kindergarteners. There are still big paintings on the walls — this month, they seem to feature paintings of battered taco stands — hung near the Eastside murals that are all but mandatory in a place like this, and in the sporting-gear shop, Fernando Valenzuela shirts still hang near replica Chivas uniforms and jerseys bearing the names of Kobe, Manny and Pau.
The juice bar sells a whole line of Oaxacan-style tortas alongside its aguas frescas now, each with an exact calorie count posted alongside its price, and the vermillion pambozas at the Michoacan-style taquería La Vista Hermosa draw lunchtime crowds to the communal tables. Right next to it is the original outlet of Chichen Itza, whose glamour may have defected to its sleek MacArthur Park restaurant a couple of years ago, but whose papadzules and shark casseroles are not to be denied. La Paloma is still a natural stop for lunch or early dinner after a trip to the nearby Air and Space Museum or a morning at USC — whose rapidly expanding campus will probably have swallowed everything but the freeway in this area by the time Gavin Newsom finishes his second gubernatorial term.
But as Mexican as the complex is in character, Mo-Chica fits right in, a few yards of counter space, a kitchen in the rear, and a few tiled tables scattered in the space between the counter and the juice bar. What Zarate is attempting is the professionalization of Peruvian cooking at popular prices, and the food he is turning out so far is sharper, more beautifully composed than any Peruvian food we have ever seen in Los Angeles.
So where every Peruvian joint in town serves papas à la Huancaina, too often boiled potatoes in a goop of chiles, cheese and cream, Mo-Chica’s sauce is slightly thinner, slightly tarter, riding a knife’s edge between spiciness and richness; where you will find causa, a sort of Peruvian potato salad, Zarate’s causa is as carefully composed as any French salad, a cylindrical composition of yellow mashed potatoes smoothed over vegetables and a chunky crab mixture, so that every bite has half a dozen different flavors and textures going on.
His care continues in dish after dish, the stir-fry lomo saltado made with decent-quality beef filet and fresh tomatoes and topped with a kind of Lincoln Log construction of French fried potatoes; a carefully arranged arroz con pollo; a big lamb shank, his version of seco de cordero, roasted with what also seems like a country-French degree of detail on a bed of Peruvian canary beans with a cilantro puree.
But it is not all straightforward Peruvian cooking here. As far as I know there is nothing in Andean cooking like Zarate’s quinotto, a bowl of puffed quinoa simmered with crème fraîche and shiitake mushrooms until it resembles a musky Piemontese risotto. And although a slab of griddle-crisped barracuda, served over a slurry of chick peas stewed with barley and herbs, may be more Cal-Med than classically Peruvian — but with a dab of fiery rocoto-pepper paste or moss-green chile puree zapped with the Peruvian herb huacatay — it might as well be.
Mo-Chica: Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Free delivery with minimum order. Lunch for two, food only, $18-$36. Recommended dishes: causa; ceviche; seco de cordero; arroz con pollo.
In Mercado La Paloma, 3655 S. Grand Ave., L.A. (213) 747-2141 or www.mo-chica.com.