I have probably visited more Peruvian restaurants outside of Peru than anyone on planet earth (it’s debatable, but maybe inside of Peru too). In most cases I am left disappointed. The primary reason is the lack of access to high quality ingredients, primarily aji chiles, as well as proper substitutions for limes and other fruits, though at times, the entire concepts may seems off. That is not the case at Ricardo Zarate’s Mo-chica in Los Angeles.
My initial and overwhelming thought after finishing a meal there was, finally, someone got it right. While there are many excellent Peruvian restaurants to be found outside of Peru, such as the Gastón Acurio’s restaurant empire, Raymi in New York, and a few promising spots in London, though Mo-chica might be the one that stays truest to authentic Peruvian cooking.
When I say authentic, does that mean every dish is prepared, tastes, smells, or resembles just as it would in Lima? No, of course not. Mo-chica is Zarate’s own brand of cooking. It stands out because Zarate is presenting Peruvian food with the same spirit and attention to flavors that a chef would in Peru. While that may sound easy enough, but too often that notion becomes lost in a combination of media hype on ceviche being the next sushi or what interior decorator designed the space. It is food simply yet soulfully cooked that isn’t forcing a dish to be something it isn’t.
For instance, take his Cau Cau, a humble criollo stew utilizing tripe, mint, cumin, and potatoes. It’s normally a home cooked meal or found in simple mom and pop Peruvian restaurants. The wealthier classes usually avoid offal meats, therefore I cannot recall ever seeing it in a higher end restaurant in Lima. Zarate’s cau cau turns the mint into mint chimichurri and swaps the cumin for cumin yogurt, but what really turns this dish on its head are the two slices of thick, crusty, grilled bread that are served with it. That’s it! You wouldn’t see such wonderful bread with a cau cau in Peru, but it is by far the best cau cau I have ever tasted. And it fits in seamlessly in downtown Los Angeles.
Other dishes, while still not flashy, prove to be equally as refreshing. A ceviche carretillero, differing only by the addition of a touch of yuzo, came out like most well prepared classic ceviches in Lima and it’s not served in a martini glass, just a basic bowl. Carapulcra was served with a big chunk of pork belly rather than whatever hunk of pork or chicken that was available.
Lima born Zarate, who opened Mo-chica in 2009 as a stand at the Mercado La Paloma, an excellent food market serving the area’s Latino community. In 2011, he opened a second restaurant, Picca, near Beverly Hills, and moved Mo-chica to a more formal space in mid-2012. His food has quickly got the attention of the local and national food media, including being named one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs” and one of GQ’s “Ten Best New Restaurants in America.” The newer Mo-chica, a few miles from the old stand, stays true to its roots. It’s elegant and comfortable without being overly refined or trendy. There is one large dining room with an open kitchen on one side, as well as a few tables lining a hallway behind it. Small, hand painted signs above the kitchen note some of the specials like they would on a street cart. The motive here is simplicity. As it should be.
514 W. 7th Street
Los Angeles, California
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.