It’s charmingly nostalgic to recall back when an early mainstreaming of Asian and Latin cuisine fusion here in Manhattan was represented by the string of Chino Latino walk-in diners that once populated a stretch of Eight Avenue in Chelsea. Serving hearty favorites of both Chinese and Cuban dishes, these places were always packed. As they caught on in popularity, the idea of an Asian-Latin fusion of flavors evolved and expanded. Today, chef and restaurateur Richard Sandoval is working it big time with his concept of the next generation of Asian-Latin cuisine in his midtown east eatery, Zengo.
In addition to its standard menu of favorites, Zengo’s rotating Test Kitchen creates an entirely new experience for diners every three months by pairing the foods of one Asian country with the foods of a distinct Latin region. In this way, Test Kitchen is Zengo’s version of a seasonal menu. Through the end of March, Zengo’s menu highlights “The Marriage of Argentina and The Philippines” – making it the first restaurant of its kind to bring these two countries together in one menu. Previously, Zengo has paired the flavors of Shanghai-Sao Paulo, Hanoi-Havana and Korea-Mexico. Very innovative!
Zengo whets the appetite for adventure upon entering its inviting, seductive atmosphere. Signature architectural touches inside the cavernous but cozy space include chain-suspended wooden beams, (which give the restaurant a pleasing Pirate Ship feel), iron gating re-purposed as window treatments and engaging custom lighting such as this chandelier you see above.
All Test Kitchen items are noted at the front of their menu description with the letters “TK” for easy identification. The wait staff has a thorough knowledge of the menu and is extremely helpful with recommendations and any questions you might have about preparation or ingredients (noteworthy: all meat and vegetables are organic!)
What we ate:
We started off with a refreshing Guava Mate ($13) one of three Test Kitchen cocktails featured on the current menu. Made with gin, guava, yerba mate and sour mix, it is very fruity with a floral essence and nice heady kick. Two of these would certainly put you in an altered state (we stuck with just the one).
From the Dim Sum & Antojitos selection we chose the trio of Thai Chicken Empanadas ($12). Each golden, crunchy Empanada, stuffed with juicy diced chicken, chile poblano and Oaxaca cheese sits on a tiny puddle of curried ginger sauce (perfect for dipping) and is topped with fresh mango salsa. Be sure you can trust your dining partner to remain sufficiently diplomatic and split that third empanada with you.
Another recommended appetizer (especially for any vegetarian) is the Vegetariano Sushi Roll ($10), wrapped in soy paper and featuring fragrant jasmine rice stuffed with asparagus-scallion tempura, which contrasts nicely with creamy avocado. The roll is topped with a drizzle of slightly spicy, luscious sambal aioli, which added to the layer of complimentary flavors.
Fans of beef should take note of the TK Oxtail Humitas ($14), a deconstructed Argentinean tamal (tamale). The generous portion of shredded oxtail (appropriately both fatty and meaty) is actually topped by sliced, deep fried masa (corn meal) and flanked on one side by a sauce of peanut, tamarind and coconut milk and demi-glace from the meat juices on the other. This is a rich, satisfying dish and ideal for sharing.
Narrowing down just a couple of main dishes from the eclectic and tempting menu was not easy but we finally decided on Zengo’s take on Steak Frites. Palomilla Lomo Saltado ($32) is a grass-fed, Colorado beef tenderloin cooked to order, presented sliced and served with a cognac pepper sauce. Accompanying sides are lightly sautéed red peppers and onions and thick cut yuca fries. Yummy!
Our TK selection was the Bacolod Filipino BBQ Chicken ($25), a tower of tastes featuring a barbecued, organic Chicken breast, marinated in a lemongrass and chile based sauce. The succulent chicken rests triumphantly on a bed of mouth-watering coconut rice and is topped with a tangy, pickled tropical fruit slaw (which we initially mistook for pickled carrots). Finally, there is a garnish of red chimichurri – making it a gorgeous and delicious dish that was our standout favorite of the evening. The chicken is cooked to tender and moist perfection and the coconut rice is an outstanding combination of sticky and fragrant, with the pickled fruit slaw adding an unexpected sweet and sour burst of flavor that put this entree over the top. We would return to Zengo for this dish alone.
We capped our evening of culinary indulgences with a TK dessert choice recommended by the staff – the Dulce de Leche Brazo Mercedes ($9)! That’s a pretty fancy name for a most unique and delicious dessert of Vanilla cake rolled with dulce de leche filling and frosted with a feather light vanilla buttercream. The cake is accompanied by ‘green mango ceviche’ (very thinly sliced raw mango) and finished off with a delightfully chilled lemon grass granita. While this cake may sound quite rich, is it actually light and not too filling; a perfect end to a very satisfying meal. We hope this item will garner universal praise to earn a spot the standard menu after its run in the Test Kitchen has expired.
Zengo is a fantastic addition to this Grand Central Station-adjacent neighborhood that is ideal for a business dinner, a milestone event celebration, date night or any type of get together where you want great food, atmosphere and service. We can’t wait to see what they do next!
Zengo is located at 622 Third Avenue (at the corner of 40th Street).