We didn’t eat out a whole lot on our recent five-day trip to Maryland and D.C., but we did get to try two restaurants in the downtown area. Zengo, an Asian-Mexican fusion place, was where D and L brought us on the last night of our visit, after an afternoon at the spectacular Newseum.
Zengo is one of those places that looks painfully trendy from the outside, and the concept sounds a little pretentious – Asian-Mexican fusion small plates? How many trends can we possibly combine here? Fortunately, this place delivers on the food front, even if the service is a little cold and detached. Three of us arrived a bit early and decided to sit in the bar/lounge area and wait for L to get downtown from his office after work. We ordered three of the happy hour sized small plates dishes and were gently reminded that in order to get the food at the special price, we each (each!) had to order a happy hour beverage. Chris had no problem ordering a beer, but D is pregnant, and I was recovering from a migraine the night before, so neither of us wanted alcohol, but ended up having to order a virgin cocktail each rather than just a juice or sparkling water or soda. Annoying, but whatever, it’s downtown D.C.
The snacks were delightful, though – my favourite were the arepas, small crisped masa cakes topped with hoisin-enhanced pulled pork and a squiggle of guacamole. The “angry Zengo sushi roll” was light on the promised yellowfin tuna, but still fairly tasty and nicely presented. Chris and D shared the potstickers with shrimp and shiitake mushrooms and liked them a lot too.
Once L arrived, we headed upstairs to the main dining room, which is huge and vibrant and dimly lit. The washrooms have no doors, but rather chain curtains that you push aside to enter. Funky. Chris ordered another beer (Bohemia! From Brazil! Awesome.) and L had the house cocktail, a mango mojito. D and I stuck to water, of course. We decided that everyone would get to order two small plates, ladies choosing first, and that everyone would get to taste everything if they desired. L asked if he could get one large plate instead, and since it was braised beef short ribs with dragonfruit sauce over Oaxaca cheese mashed potato, we all said an emphatic YES!
My choices were tuna tiradito, which was basically slices of tuna sashimi with some soy and lemon, a cube of avocado and a coriander leaf; and Peking duck daikon tacos with curried apple and orange-coriander sauce. The tuna was very tender and fresh, but I felt that the flavours it was paired with were not all that innovative. That said, it gave me my raw fish fix nicely. The Peking duck tacos, on the other hand, rocked all of our socks. It came as a platter with a stack of paper-thin rounds of daikon radish, a pile of julienned green apple with curry spice, another pile of shredded duck leg and crisped skin, and a small bowl of sweet, spicy sauce. The daikon is the wrapper for the other elements, and when all assembled it was a beautiful thing. A little spice, a little crunch, and some richness from the duck and sweetness from the sauce. We could have eaten many more of those little wraps.
Chris chose the chicken-filled empanadas with Oaxaca cheese, coriander, mango salsa and a spicy red curry-coconut sauce, and the steamed buns with pork belly, grilled pineapple and salsa verde. Both were drop-dead delicious as well. The shredded chicken and cheese in the filling were lightened by fresh coriander and lime, the mango gave sweetness and the coconut curry sauce, depth. The crust was light and not too rich. A very well-balanced dish overall. The buns were the last to arrive, and were served open rather than wrapped like traditional dim sum, with a thick slice of braised pork belly, a dollop of grilled pineapple salsa, a ring of hot pepper and a smear of coriander-heavy salsa verde. The texture of the buns was perfection, and the flavours were divine together, with the same rich-sweet-salty-spicy balance as the duck tacos. I was lucky enough to get two of these babies.
D selected the vegetarian sushi roll with asparagus, scallion tempura, roasted red pepper and sambal aioli, as well as the Thai lettuce wraps with shrimp, chorizo, peanuts, and spicy tamarind chutney. The lettuce for the wraps was crisp, the shrimp fresh and snappy, and the whole thing tasted like pad thai without the noodles. The empanadas had the added virtue of being adorable, in addition to tasty.
L’s short ribs were amazing, braised to melting, shredded perfection and crisped lightly on the outside, without too many flavours competing with the excellent beef. The bed of mashed potatoes was rich and cheesy, the dragonfruit reduction sauce subtle and fun. We couldn’t finish it all – when they say large plate, they mean it. Very good value too, at $23.
We managed to split two desserts, full as we were: D and L shared the churros with chai-spiced chocolate mousse for dipping, while Chris and I partook of the lemon-yuzu cake with ginger ice cream, five-spice crème anglaise, and sesame tuile. The churros were adorable (four of them!) and fried to order, still warm and coated liberally in crunchy sugar. The cake was warm as well, and moist, like a lemon poppyseed cake sans seeds and with another flavor dimension from the yuzu (Japanese citrus fruit). The ginger ice cream was mild and not too rich, the crème anglaise gorgeously spiced, and the tuile like a grownup’s version of the Sesame Snaps candy I grew up eating. I enjoyed every mouthful. Hot, cold, smooth, crunchy – perfect.
Nothing bad to say about the food, though as I said, we found the service a bit chilly and distant, though never rude. We would definitely go back, and you should go, too. Trendy or not, the food all works here, and that’s the whole point.