In an industry that all too often glorifies egoism — think David Chang and Anthony Bourdain down the totem pole to the majority of “Top Chef” contestants — it is refreshing to meet a rising culinary talent who wears his humility on his apron. Ricardo Zarate of Mo-Chica, the relatively new Peruvian restaurant at the Mercado La Paloma near USC, is one of those chefs, a uniquely humble man who deserves every bit of good karma he receives.
“Congrats on the great review in Los Angeles Magazine,” I tell him over the phone one day. “Ohmygod jess, thank you!” he replies. “I could not beleebe it; I was so happy.” The elation in Ricardo’s lilting English brings a smile to my face. What’s more, he also thanks me for my own “review” of Mo-Chica from September — a nice surprise for someone who wrote less a review of the restaurant than a pontification of the history of Peruvian cuisine.
I parlay our mutual appreciation for each other into a learning experience for the Comidas Bandidas, a club of curious gourmands that my friend Krista formed_._ For our initial supper club event, Ricardo agrees to develop **a special six-course feast of traditional Peruvian dishes** (modeled after a tasting menu he offers once a month at Mo-Chica), along with a tasting guide providing the historic background of each of the dishes — all priced at a steal for $35 per person.
The meal begins with innocuous but surprisingly addictive bowls of cancha, a popular Peruvian snack made from the toasted kernels of maiz chulpe. When heated, these corns do not puff but instead develop a yielding crunchiness that emulates popcorn that has been flipped inside out. It would be the perfect accompaniment to beer, if Mo-Chica was allowed to serve any.
We are soon presented with our first course, chupe de camarones, or shellfish broth with amaebi (sweet shrimp), quail egg and sweet potato. Perhaps no dish symbolizes the bounty of Peru as well as this warm bowl of chupe, a perfect juxtaposition of earthiness and brininess that recalls both the Andes and Pacific. Ricardo adds his own touch with a piece of amaebi, just barely cooked from the heat of the broth — a twist derived from his extensive background with Japanese cuisine. (He is also the executive chef of Wabi Sabi in Venice.)
Next comes the causa, a layered Peruvian potato salad beautiful in its simplicity and versatility. Mo-Chica offers a myriad of versions on a daily basis, ranging from chicken to raw fish, but ours is a vegetarian delight, with sundried tomato, avocado mousse,aioli and my favorite**, garlic confit.** _Causa_ has a unique story in that it was created to feed soldiers on the front line during the War of the Pacific between Peru and Chile in the late 19th century. A Limean potato farmer marketed this dish as “for the cause,” or the _causa_ of Peru, and it has remained a Peruvian favorite ever since.
Ceviche (pictured above), considered Peru’s national dish, is our third course. Ricardo explains that the Incas had been eating salted and chicha-marinated fish for centuries, but that the Spaniards added the Mediterranean custom of lemons and onions. Mo-Chica’s take on this popular dish is more refined than most. Ricardo, his sushi skills well-ingrained, cuts his fish into oversized cubes and lightly marinates them, enough to infuse flavor while retaining the fish’s meaty texture. The ceviche is served with a wonderfully spicy-tart leche de tigre (made from the fish marinade) on top of seaweed, sweet potato and choclo, a large-grain Andean corn.
As our pants get tighter and tighter, Mo-Chica presents us with the fourth course, carapulcra, one of the oldest dishes in Peru. In this dish, papas secas — a type of dried potato that takes the shape and texture of a softened chickpea when cooked — are stewed in a lush mixture of garlic, peanuts and spices with pork or chicken (or camelid meat, if you are Andean). Instead of the usual meat, Ricardo lightens his carapulcra with a pan-seared fillet of halibut topped with herbs puree, a Mediterranean addition to this ancient Andean dish. But the star ingredient is the aji panca, a common Peruvian chile used in the stew. Smoky and fruity, spicy but mild, the aji panca adds an indescribable depth to the dish that keeps me from putting my fork down.
There is no room in our stomachs by the time the pepian arrives. Common to the Peruvian city of Chiclayo, the pepian is essentially a corn pudding, thickened with an ingredient from Moche, an ancient civilization from whence Mo-Chica’s name is derived. Although the pepian generally comes with the pork cooked into it, Ricardo switches things up with a slab of crispy pork belly right on top. Eleven pairs of eyes widen as the waitresses present us with these daunting pieces of meat. I manage to squeeze in a few delicious forkfuls before succumbing to my stomach’s cries for reprieve.
And yet there is always room for dessert. A few hours and several thousand calories after the cancha, we find ourselves ravishing a fluffy, fragrant maracuya suspiro, a whipped passion fruit mousse with chantilly cream and touch of lime zest. It tastes exactly as it sounds, and is the exclamation point to this epic meal.
Ricardo stops by to thank us profusely for our support; we greet him with a chorus of “No, thank _YOU_s” in return. “Please tell your friends,” he asks. “Of course,” we all say. Later he would drop me a personal note to thank me yet again, with a request for feedback so that he could improve the dinner for next time.
And so I’ve come to fulfill my promise. A culinary journey to Peru and back in six beautiful courses, from a chef who seeks not fame, but the betterment of himself and his craft — it’s not to be missed. Ricardo’s next monthly tasting menu dinner takes place this Thursday, November 19 (same deal, six courses for $35), or you can check him out at the Breadbar Hatchi series on January 28.