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Beverly Hills

Mo-Chica Peruvian Restaurant ~ Mercado la Paloma

10:26 AM PDT on June 1, 2009


Mo-Chica ~ Mercado Paloma ~ 3655 S. Grand Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90007 (213) 747-2141

Even when catching it yourself, fish does not feel as fresh as it does from the plates of Lima native Ricardo Zarate, Executive Chef at Venice's Wabi-Sabi and the proud new papa of month-old Mo-Chica Peruvian Restaurant, in Expostion Park-adjacent Mercado la Paloma. Of course, we all know Peruvian eats for the legendary ceviche, and while Mo-Chica's is the best we've had in eons, it is only a tiny part of Zarate's powerful paeon to his home country's cooking. We spent a mellow evening in fits of ecstasy as Ricardo guided us through his short menu of soulful, beautiful recipes filled with sharp, clean, and thrilling flavors.  It was surely one of the best meals we've had in 2009 and provides a chance for Angelenos to eat innovative cooking by a sophisticated expert chef at his stride, at prices even the foreclosed on can afford.

We were met with a cloudy brown concoction of barley iced tea. A sip seems to place an invisible bag made of thin viscous jelly into your mouth that pleasantly gives way to a refreshing light tea bearing sweet tones of chocolate, lemon, malt, and the bite of ginger. My tastebuds and brain grappled with defining the delicious tastes at first, and now bug me for more as I write this.


Ricardo's passion for preparing food is only matched by his apparent ability to select the very best at market each day, which is why he rotates daily specials along three common themes, making room for whatever he finds that excites him. His causa, possibly Peru's other best known bite, has the soft potato salad playing top tier to delicate  crabmeat and avocado, in a peppery, smoky, slightly spicy combination of mashes. A mesclun salad glistens under vinagrette, supplying the same tart, eye-opening kick provided by Peru's favored fish dish. And speaking of which, only one ceviche dish hits the tables each day, in our case a beyond-fresh plate of citrus-showered, raw white tuna dallying with marinated red onion strips, velvety white beans, yams, and giant kernels of dry, grill-scorched corn that pop with pressure to reveal soft earthy flavor. These accessories are present in many of Zarate's preparations. The ceviche defines crisp and alert, giving a spicy punch to the powerful combination of  vinager, onion, and cilantro that the fish soaks in so well.

As one with Irish/Polish ancestry, I feel a kinship with my Peruivan 'manos and 'manas over our peoples being plum-nuts over spuds. The one constant among these $3-$5 starters is a refined and superior version of papa ala huancaina, boiled tater halves with quarters of boiled egg, and huancaina, a sinful cheese sauce that, like much of the cooking, balances sturdy and delicate, blending feta with aji amarillo chiles.  It is rich, but easy to eat, cheesy and creamy, with the sporadic consistency of grits.


Seco de Cordero, a massive Lamb shank stewed in cilantro and beer, looks like the edible version of something you might find on an archaeological dig, a bounty of slow-cooked game meat mostly obscured under a dark green criollo in the shallows of white beans, red peppers, and its own thin, green broth. A gentle tap of the fork caused the form to collapse in shards of bliss. Each of these bites was like taking a Tetris puzzle made out of game meat apart with my teeth; each marbled, flavor-filled square sliding off the bone in tiny geometric cubes to be shredded. The accompanying green broth with white beans and tomato provides a sweet base for the meats' dark natural flavors.


Quinotto looks like a bowl of hot oatmeal, but is a comforting combination of wild mushrooms, quinua risotto, and creme fraiche. This is one of the restaurant's more curious dishes, and a display of the techniques Zarate must have picked up in his years cooking in London and U.S. kitchens, just as his ceviche speaks to his years in Peru and some of L.A.'s best known Japanese restaurants. A spoonful is pure ecstasy in flavor and texture; a creamy, smoky, wet swamp of popping grain drenched in the best flavors of fungus with a hearty power to recall Piedmont in a bowl.


Zarate's eye for great seafood is Tsukij-ian, changing as our local markets' selections appeal to him. Here is a flat pompano under a crush of the usual garnishings and floating on a molten red sauce of pepper and tomato, only the spiny tail and crispy sides peeking out.


Around this time, Chef Ricardo proved he's got the purple! His divine purple corn tea sounds like something Prince would serve you at his after-party, and is actually fit for royalty; a sweet, wine-smooth blend bobbing with pineapple cuts.


Lomo saltado was my favorite, and could kill all over South America. A stir-fried filet of tender beef sits under a Jenga-style patch of fluffy fat fries. The preparation bears a tangy criolla sauce, with smoky, peppery support from the beef and sweetness from the onions. Zarate cooks many of his meat dishes in a wok with soy sauce, and the addition of ginger is one of the chef's many adaptations of the Asian influences present in Peru and Los Angeles.


Aji de Gallina is a henhouse jam, reprising the huancaina's yellow scheme. Cuts of crispy chicken stick to a creamy, spicy aji chili bread sauce with all the flavors of Japanese curry, backed by walnuts and other sundry sweetness, cinnamon and cumin being prime possible culprits that balance the high spiciness of this delicious dish.

Arroz con mariscos feels just like a miniature plate of perfectly prepared paella. Small clams fight for space with plump shrimp and mussels in a bed of sauteed Spanish rice and salsa madre, showcasing again the incredible talent Ricardo has for bringing supreme quality to a range of influences from his small kitchen.


As if Chef Ricardo had not seduced us already, the tightly-coiffed senior server came back with this dessert that made us nearly collapse at her feet. Chef Ricardo could be charging $30 a plate or more for his fare, instead of $10-$13, which is the price of the most expensive offerings. On top of this, tax is included and as the service is mostly counter-side, tips are entirely up to the size of your heart. Nudge, nudge...

Quality, culinary innovation, beautiful design, and deft skill pour from this small stand as if it were Beverly Hills' newest celebrity sensation, but with better food. Our gainfully employed friends hung up on Gelina and Bazaar should pay us the money they are going to save when they hit this joint. Simply put, our many plates of Peruvian perfection combined into one of the best meals we've experienced in months.

We were surprised to hear how many diners around us were previously unfamiliar with Mercado la Paloma, where Chichen Itza serves great Yucatan cuisine and neighboring Taqueria Vista Hermosa has excellent standards itself, including kick-butt tacos. Mo-Chica is one more treasure to add to the collection, but we imagine it can't be long before the massive warehouse space is having trouble accommodating all of  Zarate's new devotees. Our TACO hats off to the chef, possibly the hardest working man in the local food biz today!

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