Go slightly south of downtown, to a concrete and warehouse neighborhood just off the 110, inside the colorful market of La Paloma Mercado, and you'll find, in addition to the last remaining outpost of Chichen Itza, Mo-Chica, undoubtedly the best Peruvian restaurant in Los Angeles.
Behind the casual counter and inside the small kitchen which comprises Mo-Chica, you'll also find Ricardo Zarate, the Lima native who opened the tiny restaurant about a year ago. Zarate no longer commutes between Abbott Kinney's Wabi Sabi, where he was executive chef, and his own restaurant, which he did for most of the last year. Instead he's been busy working on some new ideas. For more on Zarate's current projects — a new place, Anticucho, is set to open in the fall — as well as his route from Peru to London to California, turn the page. And check back later for the second part of the interview, as well as Zarate's recipe for Aji de Gallina.
Ricardo Zarate: What would you like me to tell you? You want me to tell you what Mo-Chica is all about?
Squid Ink: Sure, absolutely. What is Mo-Chica all about?
RZ: Okay, Mo-Chica is a project I started like about 4 or 5 years ago, in my head, you know. I was in London at that time, and I introduced Mo-Chica to some investors there. There were about to do it, but then September 11th happened and it never happened.
SI: You were going to do it in London?
RZ: In London, yes. So then I was working in different restaurants, doing Japanese food. And they hired me to come here to Los Angeles, and I executive chef at the Biltmore Hotel. I was working there for one year, and I was supposed to do a project for Tetsuya Wakuda, a very famous chef from Australia I used to work for. We were supposed to do a project, a restaurant, at the Biltmore, but when I arrived it never happened. So I was here already, living at the hotel, and because I was bored doing nothing, there was a Japanese restaurant there, TK, which I took over and I started playing around. But I decided to leave because I knew it [Mo-Chica] was never going to happen. I went back to London, I continued with the project. I couldn't manage to find anything, and then I met these people who decided to do the project here in California. So I came back again three years ago.
I had opened this restaurant that became very popular, Zuma [a highly-regarded izakaya in London]. I was working there when they approached me and I told them, you know, I think this is the concept you want. A Peruvian concept. I want to do Peruvian with a Japanese touch. But when we came here they completely changed their minds, it turned out they wanted Japanese, blah blah blah, it was horrible. So I decided I better put it aside because it's going to damage it, not being fully done. So I left and I went to work at Wabi-Sabi. And I decided I was going to do it myself.
I found this location here, I fell in love the first time I saw it. I knew it would be very difficult, but this was the only place I could afford. I said, this is the only chance I have. Because I tried many times. It was very hard to introduce Peruvian food to people; not many people know about Peruvian food. The only way to do it would be to find a little corner in a market and try and do it from there. And you know I'm trying to be recognized. And I kind of have been. I'm very glad. It's a lot of love. And many years.
SI: Are you still cooking at Wabi Sabi?
RZ: No. I left a month ago. Because right now I'm working on a different project. Which is probably going to be opening a new restaurant. It's not going to be a continuation of Mo-Chica. It's a different concept. It's hopefully going to happen soon.
SI: (Registering sudden irrational fear.) You'll keep Mo-Chica??
RZ: Oh, Mo-Chica is going to stay here. The idea of Mo-Chica was to introduce Peruvian food to people. This concept I made easy, because my dream of Mo-Chica — this is my business plan — is to put it into Whole Foods, you know? I want to put a little stand in there, organic produce, 2 chefs cooking, really clean food. That's my project for Mo-Chica, hopefully one day I will be able to do it. In the meantime, the idea is Peruvian, Nobu-style Peruvian.
SI: This is the new project?
RZ: No, it's not. That project is on hold. I'm working on a different project right now.
SI: So are we talking about Moche? That new project?
RZ: No, Moche is the one that's still on hold. Moche will be like Nobu Peruvian, something like that. We're working on that, but it's a little bit stuck. Unfortunately I can't say much about that. I think it's going to happen, but it's going to take awhile. Maybe another six months, hopefully less. But in the meantime I'm working on small project, a different project. I'm going to do another project, and then if Moche comes through… This other thing I'm doing is going to be like anticucho. Do you know anticucho? Anticucho in Peru are skewers. So it's like a skewers bar, an anticucho tapas bar. Only skewers, all under $5.
SI: Very cool. Do you have a location yet?
RZ: I think more on the westside, a good location. I think it's going to work. A building, a liquor license, an open kitchen, kind of like a robata [Japanese grill] but Peruvian. Yeah, it's coming for September. We're working on a few details, but if everything goes well this month we'll start construction.
SI: Can you tell us where?
RZ: I can tell you around. Because it's not done yet. Beverly and Pico. It's closer than here. I'm thinking if I can manage to bring people all the way from everywhere to Mo-Chica, that one will be better.
SI: Do you have a name for it?
RZ: Anticucho. It's going to be fun. I think because it's clean. Remember, I have 12 years of experience cooking Japanese. I learned a lot of Japanese techniques, you know. It's going to be very clean, with a nice flavor, Peruvian flavors, clean presentation. And affordable. Maybe this will be the next step. I have to do something this year, and this is the project.
SI: Is this why you left Wabi Sabi?
RZ: Yeah, that's the reason. Mo-Chica is a project still. This was my opening goal. I have so much love for this place — it's been open one year, exactly one year.
Check back tomorrow for the second part of this interview.