It's that time of year when graduating students pack up their things and move from campus out into the real world. Like many graduating Trojans this month, Mo-Chica had a great run down at USC, but as of this week, it's time to move on. Awaiting the modern Peruvian restaurant is a bigger, better space on 7th street downtown. Also expanding in the Mo-Chica 2.0 upgrade is the menu, adding delights such as alpaca (yes, that woolly animal similar to a llama) and morcilla (a blood sausage popular both south of the American border and in Spain).
Chef Ricardo Zarate along with managing partner Stephane Bombet have made big waves in LA over the past few years. First with Zarate's unique take on Peruvian at the original Mo-Chica. Next they graduated to fusion, combining Peruvian and Japanese flavors on the westside with Picca Peru. Now, with the relocation and expanded menu, the new Mo-Chica takes Peruvian to the next level.
We never made it to the original Mo-Chica, but we see shades of Picca in the new space, with its colorful, vibrant decor and mix of two-tops, booths and communal tables. The kitchen is wide open, and you can watch Zarate's team prepare your meal behind the glass.
Or you could saunter over to the tiny bar in the back and ask for a drink off of Mo-Chica's small but fun cocktail list.
Top left (clockwise): The Doggfather ($11), a drink we first encountered at Picca, is a very nice Pisco Sour, with pisco porton, egg white, fresh lime juice, fresh lemon juice, cane syrup sugar, angostura bitters. The Papa Don't Peach ($12), combines Banks rum, fresh peaches infused with calvados, peach bitters, simple syrup, and fresh lemon juice for a light drink perfect for summer. The Oaxacalifornia Love ($12), with mezcal, tequila, fresh lime juice, and pineapple rocoto gomme is just phenomenal, slightly smoky, spicy and sweet, making it necessary for us to order more than one.
Right: I'm Grapey and I Know It (wiggle, wiggle) ($12), with green grape and cardamon reduction, fresh ginger juice, orgeat syrup, oro italia pisco, soda, and a lime wheel, is kind of like the song that inspired its name - really fun in a weird way (the ginger and cardamon are prominent notes), but maybe not something to experience too much of in a short amount of time.
Bottom Left: The Santa Clause is Back in Town ($12), with Atlantico Reserva Rum, Elizabeth allspice, and fresh lime juice is also aptly named - the dominating allspice drags your mind to thoughts of the winter holiday. Finally, the Tea-nage dream ($11), with Oro Quebranta pisco and Pitta & Brendan's tea is a simple, pleasant, very sippable option.
Our parade of dishes starts with a bang. The pan con tuna ($10, below) heaps silky, fatty tuna and avocado atop a grilled slice of crusty bread and drizzles it with a spicy sauce made out of rocoto (a pepper indigenous to Peru) and a bright, creamy yuzu mayo. The wonderful balance of flavors and textures sets the bar high for the rest of our meal.
The solterito ($9, below), a southern-style Peruvian salad made of lima beans, choclo (that monster corn we liked so much at Picca), feta, olives, english peas, queso fresco, and rocoto vinaigrette, is refreshing and light, a smart counterpoint to many of the heavier meat options populating the menu.
No surprise that the ceviche carretillero ($13, below) is outstanding - we loved all of Zarate's ceviches at Picca, and he continues the streak here. Succulent cubes of fresh seabass bathe in an intensely bright, slightly mouth-puckering leche de tigre with rocoto, red onion, and yuyo (seaweed), and choclo and cancha (toasted corn kernels) provide a fantastic textural contrast.
The Aji de Gallina ($11, below), a traditional chicken stew, represents heartier Peruvian fare. The dish gets its hue from the tasty aji amarillo (yellow chili) bread sauce, which blankets goodies such as hard-boiled quail egg, confit pee-wee potatoes and walnuts.
For those with bigger appetites, the seco de cordero ($16, below) might be a good choice - a monstrous lamb shank comes plated with filling canorio beans and cilantro beer sauce. The tender meat is less assertive, seasoning-wise, than the rest of the dishes, but will ensure you don't leave hungry.
The gorgeous estofado de alpaca ($16, below), or alpaca stew, is as impressive taste-wise as it is visually. Tender pulled meat rests on a bed of fresh tagliatelle, and gets a good soaking from the vibrant golden aji amarillo sauce and yolk of a fried organic fertile egg.
Finally, the colita de rez ($14, below) ties a bow on the savory portion of our meal. The meat of the oxtail, though a bit scant, is perfectly cooked, doused in a delicious gravy and topped with huancaina salsa criolla. While the protein is ostensibly the star, the trigo de mote (wheat grains boiled in water, very similar to farro in texture and taste) in its luxuriously creamy orange sauce is equally fantastic.
As the sun starts to set on our dinner, we move onto the dessert portion of the menu. The sol y sombra ("sun and shade") ($8, below) is unique, a Peruvian twist on creme brulee that adds into the mix purple corn, pineapple, granny smith apples, apricots and raisins.
The picarones ($8, below), sweet potato and kabocha beignets, disapper in a heartbeat. The bits of fried dough get a really great, not-too-sweet glaze of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fig and honey reduction.
The alfajores ($8, below), or Peruvian cookies, end the meal on a high note - rich crumbly, buttery shortbread sandwiches dulche de leche & rocoto chocolate ganache for a lovely last bite.
This recent graduate already knows what it wants to be. A day into the new digs and Mo-Chica already has its act together. The space suits it well and the menu feels fully evolved. We'll totally be back for the seabass, the tuna and the alpaca. But we're already looking ahead to all the dishes we didn't get to try. A burger made from lamb and alpaca? A potato stew with crispy pork belly and chimichurri? Grilled octopus in jalapeno sauce? Okay, we might just have to make another reservation right now.