While I still haven't found a restaurant serving rocoto relleno – the deceptively fiery red pepper stuffed with, among other things, eggs, cheese, potatoes, aji panca and meat (alpaca being my protein of choice, and the choice for many an Arequipeño) – there's certainly no shortage of restaurants where one can indulge in Peru's madly diverse cuisine. But while Novo-Andean and contemporary Peruvian fare get the spotlight around the world, our fair city, alas, has been left in the dark. So, for now, we continue to refine our ever-discerning palates on traditional Peruvian cuisine, a cuisine we became even more familiar with at Mo-Chica on I-Drive.
Of the six varieties of ceviche served here, for example, we'd gladly re-familiarize ourselves with the bracing and balanced mixto ($14.95) time and again. Buttressed by a mound of choclo (fat Peruvian kernels of corn), an even taller mound of corvina, calamari and octopus crowned by a dive-bombing shrimp was a true study in food sculpture. For me, the pull of anticuchos ($12.95) proved too strong to resist ... what can I say? I HEART heart, and these plush beef tickers come sizzling on a cast-iron skillet with sliced potatoes and choclo. The hearts, I have to say, weren't as earthy and peppery as I would've expected – perhaps a more potent marinade of aji panca is in order.
Picture three wee Carmen Miranda heads on a rectangular dish and you'll get an idea as to the plating of the house causa ($7.50): boiled yellow potatoes formed into drums, then layered with avocado and a creamy headdress of chicken salad and botija olives. Curlicues of huancaina sauce (fashioned from ají amarillo peppers) simulate a sense of gyration, but it's all illusory. The flavors fall a bit flat and it's probably not a dish I'd pencil onto my dance card again.
In between sips of not-particularly-stiff pisco sours ($9.95), we nibbled on addictive cancha – toasted Andean chulpe corn – and noted the sizable mural of Machu Picchu on the bar wall. Not that we didn't notice it when we first entered, but the pause in between courses gave us, well, enough of a pause to properly behold it. I recalled the four-day trek I took to the Lost City of the Incas 13 years ago; eating cuy in Cuzco, bug-infested fish in the Amazon, back-alley snacks in Lima.
I can't say Mo-Chica's seafood chaufa ($15.95) induced any such dreamy reverie – the mussel-topped plate had more than its fair share of uncooked rice kernels amid shrimp, octopus and calamari. The crunchy raw rice threw the dish off and so we delved deeply into a plating of lomo saltado ($15.95). Morsels of beef tenderloin couldn't have been more plush; the fries, crisp yet yielding; the use of soy sauce even-handed; and the rice – the rice – fully cooked. Sure, it was a better dish, yet shrugs of indifference, a less-than-excited mood, seemed to prevail.
We ended with a caramel-rich flan or, as the Peruvians like to call it, crema volteada ($6). "Volteada" literally translates to "upside-down" and, as good as the dessert was, our faces showed otherwise. The "upside-down" is where they seemed to be trapped.