(San Francisco, CA) — In our travels, we strive to sample from wide-ranging spheres of culinary influence but every once in a while we run across a gap in our experience. So it was on our recent trip to San Francisco, when we ran across a Peruvian restaurant called Mochica. Peruvian? This seemed the perfect opportunity to put a tick next to that box. We called up our good friend H and invited him to dinner...

He Fed:

Our walk from Market St to Mochica is dodgy. H tells us the area has been a known drug-dealer haven in past; he’s surprised to hear about the restaurant and seems to have his doubts about our pick. Truth be told, I’m starting to wonder if OpenTable has steered us wrong too. No matter now; we’ve arrived.

The small restaurant space is dimly lit, but reminds me of the narrow eateries we encountered in Paris and Barcelona. We are seated at a four-top and given menus. I am immediately delighted to see a Peruvian beer among the drink choices. I’ll have one of those, please! With a blare of sad trombones, I’m told they’re out. The Peruvian restaurant is out of the Peruvian beer?!? I am stricken but order an Anchor Steam instead.

Fried chickpeas, with hominy, tomatoes, red onion, and feta cheese are brought out, gratis. Now this is more like it! I get ready to dish up a big spoonful...then notice my plate is dirty. I flag down the waitress and she promises to replace it right away. Instead, I have to remind her after our first course to get me a clean one. It’s clear we’ve caught them on an off night. Despite that, when I finally get a chance to try it, the chickpeas are crispy, crunchy with just a touch of acid from the tomatoes, tangy from the feta.

Juliet isn’t particularly fond of ceviche though somehow I manage to convince her and H we should get their signature Ceviche Mochica. The chunks of shrimp and fish are presented in three different leche de tigre preparations: aji rocoto, aji amarillo, and jalapeno. Each of these is a different pepper with varying degrees of heat and sweetness. I like them all and end up finishing them when my dinner companions give up.

We also get a platter of Costillita de Chancho, pork spareribs with inca kola BBQ sauce and a stew of Peruvian dried potatoes. They are spicy sweet and slightly smoky, though different than traditional American BBQ. Judging from the way the bone yields to the teeth, I suspect they have been pressure cooked though they’re still very flavorful. Love the spices.

For my main, I am disappointed to find no octopus on the menu, though it appears on their website. As a runner-up, I opt for the Calamari Relleno. Essentially it’s large calamari stuffed and stretched unnaturally large with chorizo, drizzled with a cheesy aioli. I like the combination of flavors. However, the calamari is tough, rubbery, and chewy. I would have prefered octopus, obviously. The more I fall in love with octopus, the more I fall out of love with calamari.

In the final analysis, Mochica seems authentic enough and I’m glad we finally tried Peruvian food because I like it. Still, we seemed to catch them at a low point, with service issues, menu inconsistencies, and I also discovered a chipped plate midway through one of the dishes. I’m not sure it’s worth the walk in the dark through a bad part of the city.

She Fed:

I have to admit up front, the idea of dinner at “San Francisco’s Best Peruvian Restaurant” doesn’t excite me much. There are so many fabulous eateries in this city that sometimes I want to return to an old favorite instead of trying something new. But that’s the great thing about Jeremy, he’s always searching for the latest and greatest, which pushes me out of my comfort zone. So Peruvian food it is!

The stars are aligned and our dear friend H is joining us. We meet at our hotel and strike out for Mochica. The walk isn’t far, but the route takes us through industrial blocks and one intersection where it’s nearly impossible to cross the street in any direction. We find the restaurant, are quickly seated, and our waitress rattles off the day's specials. She’s agitated, almost disappointed to have customers. We order a round of drinks, explaining we want time to go over the menu.

The same urgency resurfaces as we order starters; she pushes us to order entrees. When Jeremy tells her we’re in no hurry, she informs us the kitchen closes in 30 minutes. Nine on a weeknight in San Fran seems early, but we quickly order. Afterwards, a two-top is seated right next to us (in a nearly empty restaurant—don’t you hate that?) and she’s on them immediately to order their entire meal. It makes for a less than relaxing dining experience.

There are more misses. Dishes are chipped, including the rim of my wine glass and I have to request a replacement. Our waitress never offers refills on wine or beers (clearly she wants no loitering), and she never checks in to see if we’re enjoying the appetizers or our entrees.

Despite the grim service, the food is pretty good. A complimentary amuse bouche of Fried Chickpeas with tomatoes, feta, red onion, hominy, and cilantro is served to every table. It’s a fun dish, garnished with corn nuts (yes, corn nuts) which give a nice crunch.

When our waitress delivers the Mochica Ceviche, three varieties of marinated seafood, Jeremy has to ask her which is which. She describes each in a bored tone and rushes off. I’m not a fan of ceviche, mainly due to texture, but I try a few bites and this is tasty enough. The Tequenos, shrimp, and mozzarella empanadas with avocado puree and sweet Panela sauce are a standout. The Costillitas Chancho are my favorite, thick meaty pork ribs slathered in tamarind sauce. They’re sticky sweet and earthy—downright addictive.

I opt for the Chancho Adobado, pork shoulder braised in beer, peppers, and onions. The meat is tender and flavorful, accented by the braising liquids. The mashed purple potatoes that accompany are comforting. The deep-fried yucca fritter doesn’t do it for me; the texture of the yucca has an odd mouthfeel.

No time for dessert or a nightcap, we depart, agreeing the food was tasty, but the service left much to be desired.

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