Ricardo Zarate wants you to know something before checking out his new Mo-Chica. Slated to open Wednesday, May 30, it replaces an earlier version of the same name that closed yesterday. “Peru. It's in South America,” says Zarate, mock-serious. “Its limits are Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia and Chile.” He recalls how one guest had thought Peru bordered Spain. “The point is, I'm trying to introduce my country through my food.”
Mo-Chica, a few doors from Bottega Louie in downtown L.A., is poised to become an excellent ambassador. Zarate describes the menu as “comfort food,” with cooked foods in large portions — think stews — rather than tiny tapas of, say, raw fish, as at his other restaurant, Picca. And the visual style — red walls, gold accents, a graffiti mural — is vibrant and fun. “We want to introduce Peruvian food, so we need to be trendy, no?” says Zarate.
Zarate dreamed up Mo-Chica while working in London more than 10 years ago. Investors didn't bite; Peruvian food seemed too foreign. So Zarate went solo to launch a small, quick-serve Mo-Chica in 2009 at Mercado la Paloma, a colorful warehouse-turned-marketplace south of downtown. Its popularity helped Zarate open the upscale, Japanese-inspired Picca in 2011. And now, a new Mo-Chica with room to serve about 80 patrons.
Zarate isn't flying solo anymore. On a recent afternoon, more than a dozen people flit around the restaurant, including managing partner Stephane Bombet. A glass-walled kitchen in the front dining room reveals an apron-clad team chopping and sautéeing at a frantic pace. Today they need to finish the sangrecita. Zarate describes it as black sausage, similar to morcilla, and a traditional Peruvian breakfast food. He'll serve it with chimichurri and huancaína sauces along with fried egg and grilled bread.
Another new dish is paiche — “the best fish you are going to eat,” if you believe Zarate, who says it tastes “buttery like a black cod.” It comes from the Amazon River in Peru, where it's being farmed as an antidote to overfishing. Zarate plans to roast the paiche, also called arapima, and serve it with ajiaco de arroz, a rice soup. He'll also prepare spicy tuna ceviche with yuzu mayonnaise.
The menu will include some of the original Mo-Chica's Peruvian staples, including lomo saltado (beef fillet with fried potatoes in salsa criolla), seco de cordero (lamb shank with canary beans), aji de gallina (shredded chicken in a bread-based, yellow chile sauce) and causa (potato salad with crab and avocado). You'll find quinotto, Zarate's nontraditional quinoa risotto, as well.
Eat at Mo-Chica, and you'll shake off the generalization that Peruvian cuisine is all seafood. Peru has 1,500 miles of coastline, sure, but it's also home to desert, the Amazon and the Cordillera of the Andes. The country's foods differ from region to region, and Zarate aims to present “a little bit of everywhere.” Peruvian cuisine incorporates foods from outside its borders, too, dating to the arrival of the Spanish in 1531. Chinese and Japanese immigration have been influential as well, and indigenous elements persist.
As Mo-Chica expands, Zarate will keep the Mercado la Paloma spot to try out new concepts. “I am very attached to that place. … It made me grow my career,” he says. Part of the attachment includes a desire to serve South L.A. locals, and not just USC students. That was a challenge for Mo-Chica, where prices ranging from $6 to $14 were expensive compared to nearby options, no matter how hard Zarate tried to keep costs down.
Right now, Zarate is focusing on the next few hectic days. Except for the unopened boxes of Pisco Patron and other Latin American liquors, the place appears ready. Jars in the front kitchen store and display colorful condiments both local and Peruvian. Dishrag-style napkins and candles set into piles of corn kernels sit on handsome wood tables. In the back dining room, a mural by local artist Kozem depicts an alpaca spray-painting the restaurant's name. And windows along the hall between the front and back rooms contain figurines of ekeko, a paunchy, jolly guy carrying packages who represents good luck. Zarate asked L.A. chefs to paint the figures, and the results range from solid gold to bright colors and designs. As if the chef didn't have enough good luck on his side.