“I think this is where the industry is going: changing the mentality of what fast food is in America,” says Zarate.

Mamacita Restaurant
Credit: © ForkedUp

If you happened to be on the fourth floor of L.A.’s Hollywood and Highland shopping-and-entertainment complex in February, you might have seen a restaurant with no sign and a chef greeting strangers and inviting them in to try some food.

Ricardo Zarate wanted feedback on his Peruvian barbecue-steak bowl with brown rice and quinoa, so he wasn’t even trying to sell anyone anything at this point. A couple of passersby did double takes because they recognized L.A.’s most prominent Peruvian chef and couldn’t believe he was giving away his food.

This marked the beginning of Mamacita, the new fast-casual restaurant that Zarate is running at Hollywood and Highland and hopes to open all over the city. Zarate, who was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2011, is also still working to open his flagship Rosaliné restaurant. He expects that Rosaliné, located in the former Comme Ça space in West Hollywood, will debut by the summer.

“I‘ve gotten a little bored waiting for Rosaliné,” Zarate says with a laugh. “I’ve been waiting for a year. I want to cook. I’m going to make a soccer analogy. If you don’t continue to play, you’re not in the game. For me, this is a warm-up for the big game, which is going to be Rosaliné.”

Plus, Zarate believes that the future of food is elevating quick-service dining while also “creating a concept that’s affordable.” So he’s using organic and sustainable ingredients while selling many dishes for around $10. He’s riffing on poke, which he jokes has become as ubiquitous as frozen yogurt, by making a yellowtail ceviche poke with seaweed salad, roasted sweet potato and a pleasantly-spicy rocoto leche de tigre. He’s got bowls and wraps with prime skirt steak, free-range chicken and portobello mushrooms. He knows that many customers want healthy options, so he’s using farmers’ market vegetables and premium grains.

Mamacita Restaurant Strawberry Horchata
Credit: © ForkedUp

There’s on-tap kombucha (beer and wine are coming), which Zarate suggests mixing with one of the housemade South American drinks like passion fruit, chia and mint. The strawberry horchata is also refreshing.

“We can open Mamacita anywhere in Los Angeles, and it’s going to work,” Zarate says. “If I can manage to have business on the fourth floor of a mall with a lot of tourists, I can make it work anywhere in L.A.”

As for Rosaliné, Zarate is still testing dishes like roast chicken and different ceviches and tiraditos.

“The best description I have for Rosaliné is it’s going to be between the rustic and the modern,” Zarate says. “Some dishes are super rustic and earthy, and some are going to be very delicate and modern.”

Rosaliné will, not surprisingly, be a showcase for Zarate’s mastery at melding Peruvian flavors and Asian influences. He’s got a grand space on Melrose Avenue, so he knows the stakes are high.

In the meantime, he’s happy to have a different kind of challenge at Mamacita, which is above a Dave & Buster’s and around the corner from a cluster of tourists photographing the Hollywood sign.

Mamacita Restaurant Mushroom Bowl
Credit: © ForkedUp

“There’s no gas in here,” Zarate says. “We have electric stoves. I don’t have a single fryer in the kitchen.”

I tell him how I recently visited Top Chef winner Brooke Williamson’s poke-and-musubi shop Da Kikokiko, which has a panini press but no stove. Zarate and I also discuss how Josef Centeno has opened his new fast-casual BäcoShop and is figuring how to balance his love for seasonal cooking with customers who want to eat the same thing over and over again

“That’s the good part, the challenge,” Zarate says. “I’m glad a lot of chefs are doing this. I think this is where the industry is going: changing the mentality of what fast food is in America.”