The 2011 Food & Wine Best New Chef is “cooking with no boundaries” in West L.A., where his gently priced menu will change often.
Things can get complex and intense when you make what might rightfully be considered "simple" food. So there Ricardo Zarate was in the kitchen, carefully looking at a scale and a timer while trying to create the perfect tonkatsu.
“It took me at least 15 tries to get it right,” say Zarate, who’s serving the splendid pork cutlet for lunch and dinner at Pikoh, his new all-day café and wine bar in West L.A.
Zarate remembers eating tonkatsu in Japan a couple years ago and watching a chef bread each cutlet to order. He saw how the chef cooked the tonkatsu and then let it rest.
“People don’t understand, frying is an art,” Zarate says. “I really appreciate what I was trying to recreate. The resting part is very important. That’s one very simple dish we managed to figure out. I’m very proud of that.”
At Pikoh, Zarate and his longtime protégé, chef de cuisine James Jung, serve four ounces of panko-coated Oregon heritage pork. The meat is fried for two minutes. Then it rests for three minutes. Then it’s fried again for a minute. The dish comes with caramelized lemon and mustard. This plate of juicy, tender tonkatsu is simultaneously elemental and profound, a great example of the depth of flavor that can be achieved when a chef knows how to balance salt, fat, acid, and heat. This plate of tonkatsu, by the way, is only $11.
Zarate, who has restaurants where dinner can easily cost twice as much as it does at Pikoh, is focused on creating an accessible neighborhood spot in West L.A. He’s serving dinner dishes like a carabineros prawn with rosemary, yuzu kosho, lime risotto, and Parmesan for $14. He’s got a crispy confit Jidori chicken leg for $9.
“Even the oysters, we go high on the food cost,” Zarate says. “We decided to do six oysters for $18.”
You can pair your meal with wine that starts at $5 for a three-ounce pour. Cocktails include a rotating $7 special. There’s also beer, sake, and non-alcoholic “potions of the world” like a spiced Peruvian punch. There’s daily happy hour. Valet parking is just $3 for lunch and $8 for dinner. Zarate says it took a lot of negotiating to make parking that inexpensive.
Pikoh is open every day from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. For breakfast, there’s $9 banana toast. A $7 breakfast burrito is stuffed with a cheese-filled poblano pepper, so you’re eating a burrito and a chile relleno at the same time. Zarate credits glorious East L.A. tortilleria La Azteca as the inspiration for the burrito.
Lunch at Pikoh includes a burger with Santa Carota grass-fed beef, chorizo aioli, gruyère, and chimichurri. That’s $13 with fries. There’s a $15 Nicoise salad loaded with preserved tuna and topped with a delightfully spicy yuzu-kosho aioli. The aioli, which includes garlic, is bright yellow because there are aji amarillo peppers in it.
There are no doubt Peruvian elements on this menu, but Zarate wants to cook all kinds of food at Pikoh. He’s not worried about categorizing his dishes here, but he doesn’t mind if you say that he’s doing California cuisine during the day and that he’s coloring outside the lines a bit more during dinner.
“I’m just going to do what I like to do,” Zarate says. “This menu is going to change very often. It’s funny. When I finished my [first] menu here, I realized, oh, it looks very Japanese.”
But Zarate plans to add kimchi fried rice soon. He wants to establish Pikoh as a wine bar where people can come for “tapas” that pops with flavors from all over the world.
“There are no limitations,” he says. “I’m going to the farmers market. I’m going to find something and put it on the menu. I’m going to be free cooking in the dinnertime here with no boundaries.”
To say that Zarate has been on a roller-coaster ride in L.A. is an understatement. He opened Mo-Chica, a modest stand with uncompromising Peruvian food at the Mercado La Paloma in 2009. In 2011, he was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef. He would end up with a Peruvian restaurant empire that included a standalone Mo-Chica as well as Picca and Paiche. Then he walked away from it all in 2014. None of these restaurants exist anymore.
Zarate ended up doing some pop-ups before opening Rosaliné, a West Hollywood blockbuster restaurant that re-established him as L.A.’s Peruvian-food king in 2017. Then in 2018, he opened Once in Las Vegas and Los Balcones in Studio City. Pikoh, which just opened on February 4, debuting about six weeks after Los Balcones did.
Zarate likens his experience at Mo-Chica, Picca, and Paiche to being in an accelerating race car and then realizing that he wasn’t driving. Depending on how you want to interpret the story, he decided to get out of the moving car or he was shoved out of it.
It might seem like that Zarate is now, with Pikoh and all his other restaurants, moving at a more rapid speed than ever.
“I didn’t expect to expand so fast,” he says. But he swears it’s different now than it was in 2014.
“I’m driving the car for sure,” he says with a big smile.
His life is more manageable now because he’s got different partners at all of his restaurants. He’s focusing on the kitchen instead of managing every facet of each business.
“Running the business myself was a very heavy situation,” Zarate says. “I was doing everything.”
He also says that what he did before felt a little like dating, so there was jealousy and other acrimony involved anytime he wanted to do something else. Now he says his business relationships are more like designing clothes for different people.
Whatever he’s doing, it seems to be working. Last Sunday, on a rainy day when the Grammys were taking place in L.A., Pikoh did about 80 covers for lunch and about 90 for dinner. The dinner crowd included former Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin, who congratulated the chef on having such a busy Sunday out of the gate.
When I visit Zarate a day later, our 1 p.m. conversation keeps getting interrupted by customers who come by to tell the chef that they’re happy he’s in the neighborhood. One guest asks him if he’s still at Rosaliné, and Zarate says yes, but that dinner at Pikoh is also worth trying.
Zarate can’t predict when he’ll open another restaurant, but he says he definitely has other ideas, including one that involves regional Peruvian cuisine.
“I don’t want to be stuck in one place,” Zarate says. “I’m happy about having different partners.”
“I don’t put it all in one nest. I learned that lesson.”
Pikoh, 11940 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, 310-928-9344