Zengo, meaning give and take in Japanese, is the perfect name for the restaurant located next to the metro station in Gallery Place/Chinatown.
Chef-owner Richard Sandoval owns five popular restaurants in D.C., including my favorite El Centro D.F., so my expectations for Zengo were pretty high. It did not disappoint.
While there are dinner entrée options, the bulk of the menu showcases small plate options that are meant for sharing. The culinary concept of Zengo merges Latin and Asian cuisine in some unexpected way, but still includes a few staples you’d likely associate with Latin or Asian food – whatever your preference. I like them both, so I was in for a treat.
The most interesting thing about the menu at Zengo is that it changes. Every few months the culinary team gets together and chooses two different countries, one Latin and one Asian, and mixes together their flavors and customary dishes for a totally unique small plate experience. During my visit, the test kitchen had produced a profile of Japan and Mexico. Some of the dishes included Thai-chicken empanadas and teriyaki pork belly gorditas sliders with Oaxaca cheese.
At first, I was unsure if sushi and tacos would make a good combination but decided to try it anyway.
I’d enlisted two friends to try the Spanish-Asian cuisine with me, so we could embrace the ‘give and take’ philosophy, so our table was full of all different kinds of options from sushi to antojitos – Mexican street food.
What was the best of the six small plates we tried? The shrimp tacos and the foie gras-plantain mofongo shumai with pork tied for the top small plates were the ones that left us wishes the small plates were larger.
If you’re on a tight budget though, Zengo might not be the place for you. The small plates range from $9 to $18 with most prices falling somewhere in the middle, while the entrée options start at $25. I’m usually a girl on a budget, but decided to splurge since I’d never explored the fusion fare before.
If you want to try some of their small plate offerings in a more economical way, their happy hour is the way to go. Our initial plan was to take advantage of the short list of selected small plates for $5-$8 and the awesome drink specials ($5 mojitos!) but when we arrived the ‘Latin lounge’ that takes up the downstairs bar area was jam packed with people enjoying a papaya salad or some Singapore prawn glazed crispy chicken wings. Even better, their happy hour runs from 3-8p.m.
The two floor restaurant stays true to the pairing of Latin and Asian cultures and cuisines with it’s decor as well. Downstairs is the “Latin Lounge,” where you can take advantage of the happy hour or just chat with friends and co-workers on the comfy small couches in the dimmed blue lighting. Upstairs in the large dining room, the lighting is brighter but the seats are just as comfy with Zen-like browns and reds with an open kitchen window where, if you took the time, you could see the chefs working. The upstairs also houses a private dining room.
As notable as the unexpected flavors, was the service. From the host, who upon seeing that my group had no where to sit downstairs during the happy hour, gave us the chance to take advantage the drink special that’s not offered in the dining room ($5 mojitos!) then had a table ready for us upstairs.
I don’t think I’m the only one who considers good customer service just as important as delicious food.
Where: 781 7th Street NW, Chinatown
Prices: Ranging from $9 to $18
Small Plate Favorite: Salt and pepper shrimp tacos with salsa verde, lemon-sake aioli and topped with cabbage
Drink Recommendation: Mango Mojito