I’m all about a good food story and a total sucker when it comes to culinary fusions. So, not surprisingly, I couldn’t have been more excited by the opportunity to check out the Latin-Asian fusion restaurant, Zengo, one of Chef/Owner Richard Sandoval’s restaurants, in Santa Monica. Chef Sandoval’s history as an international chef with roots in Mexico City, learning first-hand how to cook in the kitchen with his grandmother, along with his obvious joy in bringing together international flavors, such as Latin-Asian and Pan-Latin, appealed to me immensely. Food connects us all: people, countries, continents!
I used a voucher from LiveDeal.com, which is how I discovered Zengo, and now knowing how easy the site is to use, allowing me direct access to real-time deals that restaurants are having, don’t be surprised if you see more posts from me along these lines! This food-story girl is now even more ready to experience great cuisine, now for less, with no paying up-front like most other restaurant-related coupon sites. The perfect excuse for me to try new restaurants with friends. How great is that?! I digress…
Located deep in a corner on the top floor of Santa Monica Place, Zengo is a truly charming and most flavorful restaurant. But you have to find the front door first! It’s tucked behind another restaurant, and if I had blinked I would have missed the hostess stand for Zengo. Thinking back, how could my friend and I have missed this sign? Somehow we did…Oops!
Upon checking in with the hostess, she pointed to the dark door to her right, which was completely hidden, and she led the way inside. The entrance and hallway into the restaurant, with the dark walls lined with different types of tequilas, added to my excitement for the meal and experience to come. She asked if we wanted to be seated outside or inside, and since it was one of those perfectly crisp Los Angeles fall nights, a spot outdoors sounded so appealing.
We walked through the main restaurant, past dark booths and a cozy bar, all dimly lit by overhead lighting assisted by large hanging hurricane lamps, which added to the comfy atmosphere. It was a Monday night, so I wasn’t expecting there to be a crowd, but I did think there would be more customers. There weren’t many, but I’m going to assume that because of its location right in the heart of Santa Monica and in the newly renovated ‘mall’, it gets busier on the weekends.
Once outside, they not only had heat lamps throughout the outdoor patio, but tables directly in front of a long outdoor fire pit. How could I resist?
On a side note, perhaps sitting so close to the fire wasn’t the best idea, as my back got almost too hot as the evening went on, but we could have moved…and didn’t. I loved feeling all snug, next to the fire, so we stayed put and loved it.
First up, a cocktail of course! I asked our waiter if there were drinks he’d recommend that would really nail the fusion feeling that Chef Sandoval want his customers to experience, and he pointed out the Jalapeno Orange Margarita. For me, a bit of spice is a positive addition to most any cocktail, so I ordered his recommendation and adored every sip. The heat of the jalapeno was the perfect complement to the sweet and sour of the margarita. I asked for just a touch of salt on the rim, and in retrospect, I don’t think it needed it. It was a delicious cocktail, but I wasn’t so sure of where the Asian part came into play.
As I perused the rest of the menu, there were other cocktails that I might have tried, had I not had to drive home! Drinks such as the TK Shiso-jito, with Peruvian Rum and Shiso, or the TK Pisco Elevation, with Pisco and lychee, would have been next up for me to try. I see directly the fusion of cultures in these two, for example. Next time, next time…
What to order first? The menu has an array of choices, from ceviches and sushi rolls to dim sum, small plates, salads and larger main dishes. Every plate is described in such a way that you know that what you will be eating will be full of a variety of flavors, and true to form, I was not disappointed.
As always, I asked our waiter if there were any dishes that are popular or that he’d recommend. He mentioned the Hamachi Tiradito (yellowtail sushi with cucumber, shiso, srirachi, ponzu and lemon) and the Angry Zengo (spicy yellowfin tuna, cucumber, sesame, green onion, avocado, wasabi tobikko and a chipotle rouille), and once again, we went with his recommendations and were not disappointed.
The Hamachi Tiradito was a larger portion than I expected, but that is not a complaint. The large pieces of cucumber, the pineapple, ponzu and srirachi flavors and textures all went well with the yellowtail, and because of the size of each piece of Hamachi, the natural taste of the fish wasn’t hidden. In fact, it stood out.
With the Angry Zengo, I was nothing but happy! I had been curious to see how the chipotle rouille would taste on a spicy tuna roll, but again, they were meant for each other. There was just a small hint of the chipotle, just enough to add the Latin touch necessary to complete this dish.
Too temped by my choices of small plates, I decided to forego the larger main dishes, although they all looked quite interesting and delectable, especially the Achiote Salmon with Chinese Broccoli and Shitake Mushrooms or the Tagalog-Style Churrasco Steak with Lemongrass Mojo and Green Herb Chimichurri. Instead, we continued with the Thai Chicken Empanadas, Achiote Hoisin Pork Arepas and Brussels Sprouts with Apple and Lemongrass Mojo (since I didn’t get to try the same lemongrass mojo offered on the churrasco steak!).
The Thai Chicken Empanadas were literally bursting with flavor and by far my favorite dish of the night. I tasted distinctly the poblano chile in the chicken, along with lemongrass, unless my taste buds were fooling me. Perhaps it was in the curry of the Mango-Curry Salsa. These were also quite filling, as to be expected from empanadas.
I often have found myself disappointed by arepas, traditional flatbreads made with maize, when I have ordered them elsewhere, as there can almost be too much flatbread for the topping added. It just takes away from the balance of the dish. This was not the case with the Achiote Hoisin Pork Arepas. The beautifully seasoned shredded pork, topped with avocado and ‘crema fresca’, all sitting on the light and tasty arepa were scrumptious!
My only real dissatisfaction came with the brussels sprouts. While the flavor was out of this world, my only issue was with the texture of the actual sprouts, which I think would have been much better had they been a bit crispier. The addition of the apples on top did provide a bit of a crunch, but it really needed to be from the sprouts themselves. Maybe it was the lemongrass mojo that made them too soggy, but this is a very minor complaint, as we still ate most all of them!
As much as the lighting I had from sitting outside next to fire might not have been most ideal for picture-taking, the plating for all of the dishes we enjoyed were actually quite nice. Since they were all small plates, from beginning to end, I felt as though the amount on each plate was perfect for sharing, not too much, not too little.
Perhaps we ordered too many items from the menu, since we didn’t even have room for dessert (!), but with so many flavors and taste combinations, we couldn’t help ourselves.
Zengo, I will be back. I believe I had a proper taste of what Latin-Asian fusion can be, with the countless ingredient combinations and chances taken with the menu, and I am eager to return and try more. My sincere thanks to LiveDeal.com for the discounted voucher and to Chef Richard Sandoval for a most enjoyable, cozy, and tasty evening!