Koreatown’s supper club Mama Lion now has renowned chef Ricardo Zarate as a culinary partner to reimagine its menus. Known primarily for its bar and live music scene, owner Robert Kim asked Zarate to invigorate its culinary offerings.
Recently, my husband and I visited Mama Lion to try some of Zarate’s new items. Most of the dishes are served tapas style, with his signature Peruvian touch combining with regional Asian and Latin influences.
We started with house-made blue corn tortillas layered with grilled mushrooms, caramelized onions, parmesan cheese, a sprinkle of chopped cilantro, a touch of truffle essence and topped with thinly sliced radish. Next, we tried his Taco Tu Madre, a pork chicharrón on blue corn tortillas with avocado, cotija cheese and a citrusy and smoky chipotle yuzu sauce and topped off with a sprinkle of spicy kimchi, which gives this taco a whisper of heat.
The ceviche frito came next, offering fried sea bass nuggets with chipotle Leche de Tigre, red onion Peruvian salsa criollo and Peruvian “cancha choclo” corn nuts. Crisp romaine lettuce leaves accompany this dish, which and can be eaten as a lettuce wrap.
Another sensational fish dish is the sushi-grade ceviche kampachi. It’s marinated in a citrus based ponzu with a side of avocado mousse. Dots of chili rayu oil not only add a pop of color, but fiery flavor.
One of our favorite tapas was the smoked eggplant tartare arranged in a circle and mixed with chunky avocado, truffle essence and thinly sliced radish spheres on top. It’s ideal to spread on the accompanying crispy toast wedges.
The most immersive presentations include the kimchi chafe, served in a metal container. Lift the lid to reveal Peruvian kimchi fried rice with a sunny side egg on top. Under the egg are thin white Simeji mushrooms, and a aji and green huacatay sauce. Huacatay is a native Peruvian herb related to tarragon that offers a pleasing mix of mint and basil aroma. Proteins can be added to this dish including large grilled prawns, pork belly or skirt steak.
The pièce de résistance was the lamb chops carried to our table underneath a smoky glass dome. Zarate glazes these chops with gochugaru, a Korean-style red pepper spice, and serves them with a creamy hummus and delightful sweet and tart pickled cucumber spheres. He ignites aromatic herbs and places them on top of the chops before covering with the dome. As the top is lifted, ethereal smoke with the aroma of herbs wafts about the table. These anticuchos (Peruvian-style meat dishes) were sweet, spicy and tantalized my palate.
Dessert is not yet offered, but I’m hoping Zarate can make his famous tres leches cake that he made at Mo-Chica in downtown Los Angeles years ago.
Dinner is served Tuesday through Saturday from 6 to 10 p.m. Between 10 p.m. and midnight, Zarate offers an amended late night menu with tacos, baby back ribs and sweet potato fries. The bar stays open until 2 a.m.
Every Tuesday night, live jazz is on stage from 9 p.m. to midnight. There is no cover and walk-ins are welcome. $$ 601 S. Western Ave., (213)377-5277.