Zach Brooks, who created the blog Midtown Lunch, moved from New York to L.A. over a year ago. From my perspective, he’s been like the canary in the coal mine; the fact that he not only survived the move but is flourishing out here gave me inspiration to move here too. And, of course, once I got here we quickly made plans to hang out. I told Zach to pick a place, which was a tough task seeing as he’s done such a thorough job of canvasing the city on Midtown Lunch L.A. After a few e-mail exchanges we decided to go to Mo-Chica, which Zach described as “this unbelievable Peruvian place located in a weird food court just south of Downtown.”
The food court is, in fact, a market, Mercado La Paloma:
But Zach is right to call it a “weird” food court in that it’s a strange mix of authentic food stalls (one serving genuine Aztec food, which Zach told me was incredible), more mainstream options like a burger jointy place, and, naturally, a place selling cheap car insurance:
And then, of course, there’s Mo-Chica which is right there in the front, on the right, when you walk in:
The chef, Ricardo Zarate, has earned plenty of accolades for his food here. He was a 2011 Food & Wine Best New Chef and Los Angeles Magazine named Mo-Chica the 4th best restaurant in Los Angeles in 2010.
The food at Mo-Chica is Peruvian (Chef Zarate grew up in Lima) and while waiting for Zach and Matt to arrive, I ordered what might be a traditional Peruvian beverage–certainly something I’d never seen before–purple corn iced tea:
The way it was explained to me, purple corn kernels are boiled with cinnamon sticks, then the liquid is infused with tea and sweetened with sugar. The result is a bit wild: it tastes a little like summer (with the corn and tea) and a little like Christmas (with the cinnamon sticks). I liked it.
When Zach and Matt arrived, we carefully consulted about what to order at the counter. Then we went back to the table and awaited our food, which came rather quickly. Here are Zach and Matt laughing about ceviche:
But there’s nothing funny about this extraordinary rendition:
I’ve never had a ceviche quite like this. Instead of simple lime juice “cooking” the fish, the dressing here was more of a creamy emulsion. And the best part were all of the surprises hidden in there: large corn kernels, carrots, corn nuts, and buried in the middle, pieces of seaweed. The flavors were capital “B” big and every bite provided a totally different experience, which I really appreciated.
When we were ordering, I’d asked if we could get the chicken chicharrons which I thought would be fried chicken skin (the way it is with pork skin). But, as Zach explained later, chicharron can also mean just battered and fried foods, so when the chicken came out it was this:
Fried pieces of chicken that were definitely tasty, but not quite what I was expecting.
For our “entrees” we ordered the Aji de Gallina:
That’s shredded chicken with walnuts and aji amarillo bread sauce. It was a mellow dish, nicely flavorful but not too assertive. It came with rice and what we all thought might be a bowl of broccoli soup.
The best dish, though, far and away–the one that had all of us jabbing our forks in the air and claiming it for ourselves–is the one that you see pictured at the top of this post: that’s braised oxtail with barley huancaina risotto.
Holy cow: that oxtail has flavor. As Zach pointed out, if you ordered that in a restaurant you’d pay $30+ dollars for it. Here at Mo-Chica, in a “weird” food court, it’s $13. That’s kind of incredible.
So thanks to Zach for choosing such a good venue for our first official L.A. meeting! And thanks to Matt for tagging along too. Can’t wait to see where we wind up next.
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Warning: these pictures are terrible. But at long last, after years of cooking from “Sunday Suppers at Lucques,” I finally ate a sunday supper at Lucques!
Craig took me there for my “Welcome to L.A.” meal, something he’d planned to do all along but something that I gracelessly campaigned for over the past three weeks (“Hello! When are you taking me to Lucques? I moved across the country for you, you big jerk!”)
Credit to Craig: he didn’t punish me by taking me to McDonald’s instead.
What’s there to say about Lucques? It’s everything that I hoped it would be. Cozy inside, unintimidating. We sat indoors near what seemed to be a fireplace; there’s also an outside area where you can eat under the stars, astride walls covered with ivy.
A funny thing happened at Lucques: our waiter? He told us we looked familiar. And it turns out he was our waiter at Lupa only a few months ago. He just moved to L.A. too. How weird is that? I suppose that was the universe winking at us.
Now, for the food. Craig and I both had a Sicilian cocktail that had Amaro in it:
It packed a punch but also whet the appetite, a useful fact considering all of the food that was about to come. A sunday supper at Lucques is much like dinner at Chez Panisse; no choices, everything just comes. Only there is one choice: you get to choose between two entrees (in this case, chicken or fish). We ordered both and decided to share.
Our first course was a green goddess salad with little gems (I think that’s a type of lettuce), cucumbers, avocado and haricots verts (sorry for the awful picture, but it’s better than nothing, right?):
What’s funny about this is that, long ago, I made this same dressing from the Sunday Suppers book so it was like a familiar taste (with lots of tarragon) only prepared the correct way. It was like growing up on a desert island and reading about New York City in books without ever seeing images of it and then, one day, a ship arrives and takes you there and you’re like: “OH!!” That’s what that dressing was like for me at Lucques.
This is an awful picture of the grilled chicken with baked ricotta, zucchini, roasted tomato, salsa verde and pecorino:
What an eye-opening dish; not only because the chicken was so moist and flavor-packed, but because instead of a grain underneath (like cous cous) Chef Goin uses baked ricotta. Sounds weird but it totally works; the ricotta soaks up the chicken’s juices and also provides a surprising amount of richness to the proceedings.
This is the fish; California white sea bass with shelling beans peppers, spicy soppressata, rouille and breadcrumbs:
What’s remarkable about the food at Lucques is just how layered it all is. The flavors build and build and build; here you have so many components, you think they might clash, but they don’t at all. And, like the ceviche at Mo-Chica, every bite is exciting.
Finally, there was a wonderful and totally unexpected dessert of melon “coupe” with concord grape sorbet, creme fraiche and a candied walnut wedge:
It’s as if you said to a culinary genius “reinvent the ice cream sundae with stuff that you find at the farmer’s market.” This is the answer and even Craig, who usually hates melon (particularly: cantaloupe) loved this as much as I did.
And so it was that I finally ate the meal at Lucques that I’ve been dreaming of eating since I bought that green and yellow book more than five years ago. Now that I’ve been once, I hope to go back again and again and again. And who knows, maybe our waiter next time will be my 6th grade English teacher. Stranger things have happened!