Jen: After a beach day in Malibu full of sun, sand and naps (but lacking in snacks because we forgot to pack any) we were looking for a good meal. We settled on Mo-Chica, a restaurant we’ve been to before, but in its original location (Zorn will tell more about that—it involves a decrepit 80s limo and a lot of booze) in a food court in Exposition Park. They’ve since moved on from those humble beginnings to coveted real estate in downtown, in the pocket where Bottega Louie, Seven Grand and Màs Malo are located. Our dining experience was innovative, satisfying and surprising, in the best way.
We ordered drinks at the bar and took in the playful decor, featuring graffiti wall murals and fun little tchotchke figurines displayed everywhere. Zorn and our friend Marisa got the Watermelon Margarita (I snagged a sip…fresh and spicy!). I got “Tha Doggfather,” which was the first of delightful sensory surprises for the evening as it was finished with a sugar stenciled little Mo-Chica man (their branding/logo features a graphic little dude vaguely reminiscent of a pixelated Bart Simpson) on the egg white foam top.
Mo-Chica is a small plates restaurant, and so we started with the Chicharron de Pollo (crispy chicken), Ceviche Carretillero (seabass ceviche) and Pan con Tuna (Spicy tuna on toast). The crispy chicken was a pretty basic fried nugget of meat with the typical jazzed up aioli. The ceviche was impressive and presented with two types of corn, including one with giant kernels as big as thumb nails.
This dish really stuck out in my mind because I had just heard on NPR that very day a story about a rare heirloom corn that is full of protein with a buttery flavor. The tuna on toast was reminiscent of a spicy tuna on crispy rice that you might find at a sushi joint, and it was very good. The bread had a soft but chewy consistency that played well with the ground spicy tuna and mayo dressings.
We then moved on to larger shared plates, with a whole, head-on Branzino fish (the special of the night—we got the last one!), Estofado de ALPACA (that’s right, the cuddly, cute animal with long eyelashes that yields a very soft knitting yarn) and Lomo Saltado, a beef fillet dish. The Branzino was definitely the star of the night. It was tender and flavorful, with stewed vegetables and potatoes. I’m Chinese, so I went straight for the fish cheeks!
We finished the meal with two desserts: Picarones, a chewy donut made of squash and sweet potato, and Alfajores, dulce de leche shortbread sandwich cookies. The chewiness of the picarones was very satisfying, but perhaps there was a little too much baking soda in the recipe because there was an unpleasant metallic aftertaste. The Alfajores were dainty —I think our local Argentinean bakery makes them tastier, and they are also bigger and cheaper!
We didn’t end up finishing the desserts. Not because they weren’t delicious, but because we were stuffed with branzino fish! We would definitely recommend Mo-Chica for its thoughtful, unexpected touches and adventurous menu.
David: My first experience with chef Ricardo Zarate was with the first incarnation of Mo-Chica back in May of 2012. We were looking for a good place to dine around USC before seeing Roger Waters perform Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” at the Coliseum later that evening. We were going all out with a limo car service for the occasion. My buddy Jason arranged the car and the reservation and I expected I would be picked up by a stretch limo with LED lights and dinner at some pretentious fine dining spot. As it turned out, the evening was much more colorful than I ever could have imagined.
Our limo was basically a run-down 1980s Lincoln towncar with a slight extension. It was white with a dingy navy velour interior, and it was kitschy and cheesy and awesome all at once. Our British hasbeen driver, Steve, sternly warned us against fidgeting with any of the switches for fear of blowing circuits in the car, and so we sat back in traffic and proceeded to get our drink on. By the time we go to Mo-Chica, we were fairly inebriated, and so we barely noticed that we had been dropped off at what was basically a food court. The “restaurant” was in a dingy USC adjacent flea market. We walked in with our red Dixie Solo cups and found a lovely table set up for us within the food court by the Mo-Chica staff. From what I remember, the dinner was outstanding and they even waited on us…even though we were in a food court! Steve the limo driver did not join us.
Fast forward to this past Friday night. The new Mo-Chica is all grown up with a trendy space, full bar, waitstaff, and a hostess! The menu is similar to Picca (his first non-food court success), filled with ceviches and dishes emphasizing unusual cuts of meat.
I started with the watermelon margarita (followed by a second), and it was one of the better tequila drinks I’ve had in LA: light, refreshing and potent. Most of the food here is tapas style, with small sharable plates that let you try a larger sampling of the menu. The highlights were the crispy chicken and sea bass ceviche. My favorite dish of the night was the branzino, which was served whole, head-on, over a plate of stewed veggies. So much flavor and so much fish! Our friend Marisa wouldn’t touch it because she was sooooo grossed out by Jen’s delectation of the fish cheeks, and so I found myself unsuccessfully trying to finish every last bit.
We tried a few meat dishes, with the beef filet being the stand-out. I would recommend staying to the smaller plates and ordering the fish dishes. My single complaint has nothing to do with the food, but with the valet. It took 15 minutes to get my car back and i noticed they dinged it up a bit. Next time, I’ll park the car myself.