ZENGO SANTA MONICA
LATIN-ASIAN CUISINE FROM CHEF RICHARD SANDOVAL
I know people have mixed feelings about the concept of small plates, as well as the fusing or hybrid of cuisines, but personally, I’m always game to try new dishes and new culinary creations. So I was excited to try Chef Richard Sandoval’s Zengo in Santa Monica, billed as an artful blend of Latin-Asian styles and flavors.
Chef-owner Richard Sandoval, whose accolades include Bon Appétit Restaurateur of the Year and Mexico's Toque d'Oro in addition to also owning La Sandia, is known for spinning regional ingredients into beautifully balanced dishes designed for sharing. And share a multitude of dishes we did during our recent visit for dinner.
Taking our cue from Chef Steven Castro, we started with the Crispy Chicken Wings with Gochujung (a savory and pungent fermented Korean condiment made from red chili, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans and salt), teriyaki and green onions. This is a great starter item, perfect to share, as are the Thai Chicken Empanadas with chile poblano, Oaxaca cheese and mango-curry salsa.
While the Zengo fare is daring, bold and extremely flavorful, I found their cocktail program just the opposite. Without much balance, the drinks weren’t complex or very enjoyable (again, and I’ve said this before, I’m not one who likes sweet in my drinks). The Jalapeño Margarita, from their Taste of Cabo menu, is made with tequila reposado, Cointreau, agave nectar, fresh lime and fresh jalapeño. While it has bite, there isn’t much to it after that initial spicy taste. The Sake Sangria with sake, red wine, mango, apple passionfruit and pineapple didn’t fare any better. You know it’s bad when I switch to beer but luckily I discovered that I really like Cusqueña Peruvian beer.
The Zengo folks like to say that their beverage menu features innovative, hand-muddled cocktails as well as Latin wines, Japanese sakes and a collection of fine Tequilas. Sure, they have the wines, sakes and tequilas so I’d recommend sticking to those instead of their cocktails.
We opted to try dishes from Zengo’s Taste of Cabo menu where ten percent of the proceeds benefit the Los Cabos Children’s Foundation in the aftermath of Hurricane Odile. Those dishes include the Sea Bass Tiradito with avocado-yuzo puree, salsa negra-soy, tomato, radish, cilantro, and crispy shallots. I’m a huge sea bass fan so I was a little disappointed when I didn’t absolutely love this one. But the Octopus Carnitas “Bibimbap” made with mushrooms, roasted corn, Togorashi, jicama chile toreado, salsa roja-gochujang sauce is a great and bold creation. Talk about fusion, “Bibimbap” is a favorite traditional Korean dish and mixing it with carnitas is just genius. Hearty and delicious, this is a great hybrid of comfort food.
Other wonderful menu selections include the Angry Zengo Sushi Roll with spicy yellowfin tuna, cucumber, sesame green onion, avocado, wasabi tabikko and chipotle rouille; the Ancho Rubbed Beef Shortribs queso Manchego, potato puree, wok sautéed mushrooms, dragon sauce, and Huitlacoche; and the Chipotle Miso Glazed Black Cod with daikon, lemon togarashi aioli, and kabayaki sauce. The shortribs, and in particular the Chipotle Miso Glazed Black Cod, are really fantastic main dishes.
While we didn’t really save room for dessert, we weren’t going to let that stop us, plus we were sharing so there’s always room for a little extra bite or two. The Chocolate Banana Cake with chocolate agave sauce, salted caramel and banana ice cream is a real winner, as was the Pecan Tart. And if you’re looking for a dessert libation, the Espresso Martini with Patron XO and espresso is a great nightcap.
It’s worth noting that Zengo offers its Endless Zengo Dinner where you can enjoy unlimited small plates, large plates and cocktails for only $59 ($49 for unlimited small plates and cocktails), in addition to offering Bottomless Brunch with unlimited small plates and free-flowing cocktails on weekends from 10am to 4pm; Mojito Monday; and Happy Hour Monday through Friday from 4pm to 7pm with $5 small plates and $5 cocktails.
Chef Richard Sandoval, who used to be a professional tennis player, really serves an ace with his daring Zengo concept.
Zengo is located at 395 Santa Monica Place in Santa Monica. Hours: Mon-Thurs 11:30am to 10pm; Fri & Sat 11:30am to 11pm; Sunday from 10am to 10pm. Call (310) 899-1000.
Story by Jose Martinez