I'll be forthright: I kinda, sorta forgot about Mo-Chica. And you probably did too. Ricardo Zarate's modern take on Peruvian comfort food was all that and a bag of chips when it first premiered tucked away in a somewhat derelict downtown food court in 2009. It was a destination restaurant for Los Angelenos from all corners of the Southland. Then for many westsiders like myself, the opening of his second restaurant, Picca, near the Kosher Corridor, meant there was now a Zarate restaurant sans the traffic. Then came Paiche in Marina del Rey. So, despite opening a bigger, brightly-colored, more inviting, stand alone, cavern-like, Mo-Chica in DTLA, the restaurant slipped from memory.
However, after receiving an invite to grant the restaurant another try, it certainly won't be forgotten again. And you should probably re-visit it too. Especially at lunch time as Mo-Chica offers one of the city's most creative and filling lunch specials. Like Mozza, Mo-Chica is the type of restaurant that doesn't need to offer a lunch special. It's generally crowded and beloved by downtown denizens. It's regular prices aren't astronomical either. Rather, by offering the special, it enables patrons to experience and experiment amongst a whopping 15 different entrees and, in doing so, remind everyone why Zarate won Food & Wine's Best New Chef in 2011. All for $15.
Every day the lunch special comes with two "daily sides." On my visit, they offered a Spinach Salad and a Quinoa Salad. The Spinach Salad was pretty straight forward, but the slight spice of its aji pepper vinaigrette set it apart from your normal ho-hum spinach salad. The Quinoa Salad was even better. Full of fresh red and golden beets, the dish also consisted of a mix of both fluffy AND baked quinoa, along with a little creamy dressing. The crunch from the baked quinoa added a layer that you just don't get in most quinoa salads. Even more unexpected coming on a "daily side" portion of a lunch special. Slight touches like this demonstrate Mo-Chica's deft.
Although the Lunch Special alone would have been plenty fine, it's pretty tough (see: IMPOSSIBLE) to go to a Zarate restaurant and not order a raw fish dish. Based on recommendations, I went with the Tiradito de Seabass (basically Peruvian sashimi of seabass), which was delightful. Yes, I said, 'delightful.' The slightly seared seabass, cilantro and citrusy aji sauce make for a refreshing (w/ spice undertones) early Spring appetizer. Furthermore, the kitchen's addition of a "garlic chip" atop each piece (once again) added nice overall texture.
Choosing the entree wasn't easy. There were 15 choices after all. Ultimately I decided on the most popular entree on the menu, Lomo Saltado, and my dining partner went a little bit more adventurous in ordering the Estofado de Alpaca. First note on both entrees: they were sizeable portions. I don't know exactly what I expected, but often lunch specials leave a diner wanting more. Both of these lunch servings were plenty big. The beef filet of the Lomo Saltado was ideally tender and the flavor balance of the tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic, soy sauce and wine vinegar created a familiar, yet destinct taste. The accompanying thick Kennebec fries were perfect to soak up the extra sauce. The Estofado de Alpaca on the other hand was the first time I had ever had alpaca and I didn't hate it. Similar in texture to a short rib stew, the spicy alpaca worked well with the housemade eggy noodles below. Can't really complain about the egg atop either.
Not that they were necessary, but the restaurant also provided three sauces of varying heats. Our favorite was the orange in the middle.
Mo-Chica prides themselves on their Pisco Sour and it certainly had a bite. The restaurant's logo on the upper foam is pretty cool too.
Each lunch special comes with a dessert of the day. Although it's a crapshoot, I was really hoping for the Tres Leche cake as I read about it in various spots. And what do you know: the dessert of the day was the Mo-Chica Tres Leche cake. It was perfectly milky with caramel undertones and rather decadent for tres leches. The kitchen decided one dessert wasn't enough for us though and also sent out their Alfajores. The Peruvian cookies, one with chocolate and the other with dulce de leche filling, were a great ending to a great lunch.
This meal really is an incredible downtown bargain. Like with a similar multi-course lunch special at Mozza, it makes a local step back and remember how friggin' lucky we are to be eating in LA right now. National award-winning restaurants all over town, offering LUNCH SPECIALS. Deals that enable us to really sample the menu. And Mo-Chica's menu is a menu worth sampling.
514 W. 7th Street, DTLA
Lunch Daily 11:30 am - 2:30 pm