Mo-Chica, like a woman after a bad breakup, has a new zip code, a new look, and a new attitude. On a Thursday night, in only its second week of existence, the front room is buzzing, almost boisterously busy. Booths are loaded with couples and clusters of friends. Staff is bountiful; even managers are conspicuously checking out the scene.
A walkway to the back dining room has transformed into a mini museum, featuring hand-sized models customized by Chef Ricardo Zarate’s colleagues and fans. Thick cement columns and tabletops constructed with a strata of wood give the space an industrial feel. Deep maroon walls display colorful graffiti, and dangling shoes strung on overhead wires pay homage to the urban streets of L.A.
At 7:30 pm the back room is empty. At 8:00 pm the decibel level has amplified to a 9. ”Who knew we’d go hoarse from dinner?” my girlfriend, Mel, yells across the table. We order our first round of cocktails.
The meal begins with ceviche carretillero, chubby cuts of seabass bathed in a citrus marinade with rocoto (peruvian peppers), red onions, and served with a pile of corn kernels and a mess of seaweed-like greens. It’s a biting dish that moves from a zap on the tongue to a wave of flavor: pungent to savory then mellowing out with a sweet finish. We ask our waitress for a spoon so we can ladle the remaining drops of sauce, then slurp it and let it tingle.
We score the final order of sangrecita: juicy “morcilla”, blood sausage, slathered on a slice of crostini and topped with an oozing fried egg. It’s easy to get past the fact you’re consuming sausage stuffed with animal blood in a dish this striking. Potent with flavor, every component seems to melt in the mouth.
Carapulca is a fatty pork belly sitting in a heavily spiced chimichurri potato stew. It’s “not life-changing,” Mel comments, and I agree, but the dish can be appreciated as a hearty addition to the menu, despite its tapa-sized serving.
Attempting to recall the success of the ceviche, we switch back to seafood and order the anticucho de pulp, a Peruvian preparation of grilled octopus and potatoes. In Zarate’s incarnation, the potatoes are served both whole and mashed, then mixed with whole baby octopus, and dressed in a muddied jalapeno sauce. It comes as a surprise that octopus is served head intact without innards discarded. “Are we eating octopus brain?” I ask Mel after dissecting a plump head with a swift slash of my knife. “Do octopus even have brains?” Mel replies. The kick of the jalapeno sauce evokes a satisfying zing against the smokiness of the octopus, and you begin to appreciate the tenderness of the potatoes as a counter to the texture of the tentacles.
Over another round of cocktails, the new Mo-Chica got me thinking. Sometimes the second go can be better than the first. Reincarnated, Mo-Chica is by no means a replica of its first form. Sure, it has skeletons of the original menu, and at the core, its heart is still in the right place. But in both menu and atmosphere the new rendition is more chic, more vibrant, more varietal.
When it comes to a second bout in a relationship, however, does it ever really work? The rematch with my ex, NoMod, only lasted a month. And recently, the end of Danny 2.0 reminded me why we failed the first time, a year earlier. After all, if it didn’t work initially, what makes us think we’ll have success the second time?
Then there is Jones, as we shall call him. Jones and I took a shot in the dark a year and a half earlier. It failed. And recently we reconnected over two rounds of old fashions and a match of shuffleboard. I didn’t think anything of the reunion – just two people sharing tales on the lovers we’ve had since each other. But Jones and I continue to meet up. Several glasses of scotch and a few weeks later, Jones tells me he wants to give us another shot.
At Mo-Chica I tell this to Mel.
“I thought we talked about this!” Mel exclaimed, practically slamming her pisco sour on the table. “You dodged a bullet the first time. You came out ahead. Why put yourself back in the line of fire?!”
“He’s grown up a bit?” I responded. It was meant to sound like an answer but it came out like a question.
Mel took the bait, “He had a Lego Millennium Falcon in his bedroom. Legos!”
Pause. We burst into fits of laughter. I throw back the rest of my mezcal. Mel polishes off her pisco sour.
When the giggles quelled, I sigh, “But maybe he deserves a second chance. He’s been great to me. He’s changed. He’s…matured.”
“Based on the way he acted the first time, it doesn’t matter,” Mel says. “History proved that he is not the one for you. I know it. He’s just not.”
I decided to give Jones a second chance anyway. And the second I do, the whole affair seems to sizzle out. After a series of failed attempts to meet up, we finally connect on the phone.
“It’s been a while since we’ve hung out,” he states the obvious.
“Yeah, it has,” I reply. It’s a Sunday afternoon. I’m lying on my couch watching sun beams slip through the blinds, creating flickering trails of light on the wooden floors.
“I think I blew it when I chose to go to Malibu instead of meeting up with you and your friend last night,” he remarks.
“You kind of did,” I admit. “But how was Malibu?”
We chat for a while. He was driving in his jeep up to Santa Barbara for work, and I could hear the whisk of the wind over the phone. I picture him in his aviators, the California sun igniting his blonde hair to a shade of electric ivory. We chuckle over a few jokes. I muse about my dream job. He talks about his grandfather. Then we say amicable goodbyes.
“I’ll be out of town for a week,” he explains. “But I’m sure I’ll talk to you before I get back.”
“Have fun in Santa Barbara,” I respond. We hang up.
Jones drives up the coast. I cook up a plate of quesadillas. We never speak again.
Congratulations, Mo-Chica, you’ve accomplished what most relationships can’t: success the second time around.
Mo-Chica, 514 W. 7th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90014. (213) 622-3744.