Chef Ricardo Zarate's new Mo-chica Restaurant or Mo-chica 2.mo, as I like to call it, is a manifestation of pure Peruano vibrancy that washes over all aspects of the restaurant from its famously fresh ceviches to Kozem's colorful, graffiti art. Mo-chica's sign, dramatically lit with bold graphics, has all the gumption and confidence of a smash Broadway musical. Make no mistake, this iteration of Mo-chica is all about showtime with Chef Zarate's kitchen crew all donning black scenester fedoras and its open kitchen. The bar is tiny but front and center. Everything is staged to maximize a good time.
Before you even glance at the entrees, get yourself set up with something spicy or sweet with boozy effects. OaxaCalifornia Love is a mezcal-tequila double whammy that kicks again with the ever-present fiery rocoto spice. It's a refreshing cocktail that keeps you on your toes. The kitschy Papa Don't Peach cocktail is up to the rim with fruity flavors from the fresh peaches infused with calvados to the peach bitters and fresh lime juice. I stuck with the spicy stuff because when in Peru...
The food, of course, is the star of this stage.
Alpaca is big in Peru but not in a "it's fun to raise alpacas" kind of way like it is here on late night American television. In Peru, you can find alpaca on virtually every restaurant menu and served in several different ways. At Mo-chica, Chef Zarate presents alpaca meat as a stew and burger.
Up to this night, I'd never eaten alpaca. When I think of eating alpaca or any animal that reminds me of one, I think gamy. And I don't mean gamy as in goat or wild boar gamy either. I mean like "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," dying tauntaun that's just been split open with Luke's lightsabre gamy.
Mo-chica's Hamburgesa consists of a patty made with a blend of alpaca and lamb meat, so I opted for the more traditional Estofado De Alpaca or Alpaca Stew. But after Chef Zarate puts his spin on the classic Peruano plate, it becomes something uniquely Mo-chican. This layered dish builds from a thick swirl of golden yellow Tagliatelle bathing in a creamy pool of piquant Aji Amarillo Sauce. On the pasta, deep-red shreds of tender, moist alpaca meat is crowned with a fried egg.
The alpaca meat itself is delicate with a slight sweetness, like a fusion of pork and lamb, and a texture of pulled pork. The thick milky sauce with its bit of kick combined with a perfect tagliatelle and, of course, fried egg resulted in a singular experience that blends exotic eating and comfort food all in one plate. Fantastic!
No trip through an exotic Peruvian menu would be complete without Paiche, an Amazonian fish found in Peru that resembles residual life stemming from the Triassic. It has a flat, sloping visage that only a shovel could love. These aquatic beasts can grow to the size of a large crocodile. They have been eaten by Anthony Bourdain on his show No Reservations and featured as a challenge ingredient on Iron Chef America. It's not just a monster from the Amazon, it's a tasty monster from the Amazon. And you can get yourself a plate of this rare fish flesh at Mo-chica.
In total contrast to its prehistoric appearance, the flavor of paiche is refined and delicate (though still a hearty piece of fish). My prejudice that this creature would reside in my mouth like a swampy, bottom feeding catfish was never realized. A bed of Peruvian risotto fattened the plate up with more spice and textures.
Meat does not stay long on bones at Mo-chica. Like any great piece of tail ― oxtail, that is ― the slow-cooked meat should just tug off the bone. Colita De Rez or Little Beef Tail does just that. Braising something for 9 hours could make even cowhide tender as a fruit roll-up ― which is how much time is required to cook Mo-chica's oxtail. The result is savory, meltingly moist meat that has had its collagen broken down to the point of transforming animal flesh into meat candy.
Speaking of incredibly well-braised meat, the Seco De Cordero or Lamb Stew is a lamb shank or "shunk", as it's misspelled on the menu, but then again this hunk of shank sounds even better as a shunk. Maybe the typo was on purpose. Whatever. It was supremely tender and moist. The gentle gamy notes of the lamb were evened out by the fresh salsa up top and the meaty canario beans beneath.
No matter how boisterous the night got at Mo-chica, you knew exactly when somebody who isn't used to tripe just spied it on the menu. "TRIPE!" followed by "eeewwww" was the standard reaction. The tripe stew (Cau Cau) is another delicious example of how a person who knows what he's doing can take something admittedly alien like rubbery honeycomb tripe stomach lining and turn it into something wonderfully savory, chewy yet tender and full of great flavors. Chef Zarate once again takes a classic Peruano recipe and adds his own touch to it like tossing in pieces of grilled bread or saucing with mint chimichurri and cumin yogurt.
Anticucho De Pulpo or Grilled Octopus was as flavor laden as it was colorful with its array of microgreens, jalapeño sauce, bright orange octopus and what looked like roasted potatoes cooked with squid ink. The smoky, sweet octopus meat was noticeably fresh and perky which made this small plate even tastier.
Anyone who's eaten anything from Chef Zarate will tell you that ceviche is a must, so getting ceviche was a no-brainer.
The Ceviche Mixto harmoniously grouped halibut, prawns, squid and scallops and delightfully represented the scents, flavors and true textures of the sea. They swam in a mildly spicy pool of rocoto leche de tigre sauce. Accented with golden hominy and a wedge of sweet potato, this was probably the best ceviche I've ever enjoyed.
Maybe it's the spicy, milky ginger amarillo sauce. Or was it the supremely fresh fish that Chef Zarate uses for his tiradito? Likely both, but whatever it was, the Tiradito De Jurel, made up of silky Spanish mackerel and a rich, addictive ginger amarillo sauce, was simple and sensational.
Chef Ricardo Zarate's Mo-chica, masterfully managed by Stephane Bombet, brings the vibrant rays of Peru to Downtown LA via the new Mo-chica. The sun will shine a little brighter in Downtown Los Angeles because of it.
And even though I was hoping that Chef Zarate would sneak in some Cuy aka Guinea Pig onto his daring Peruano menu, alas, it was not to be. Maybe another time. Whatever there was lacking in cuy, it was made up for by the presence of Chuy. Now, Chuy, get us outta here!!
Chef Zarate brings modern Peru to you...one plate at a time!