January 2007: 100 Very Best Restaurants

A chic Latin-Asian fusion spot near the Verizon Center.

No. 72: Zengo

Cross-breeding cuisines is an iffy business. This electric-looking newcomer might occasionally succumb to the snares of fusion, but it also makes a good case for Asian-Latino as a hybrid with a future.

Amid the glittering, neon-lit places around the Verizon Center, Zengo looks more like a club than a restaurant. The inside, with its tangerine wall tiles, red-orange pillars, and odd, potato-shaped balls of fired clay hanging from the ceiling, does little to dispel that notion.

Zengo is Japanese for “give and take,” and chef/owner Richard Sandoval and chef de cuisine Graham Bartlett bring a mad-scientist quality to their mixing and matching. Asian sweet notes (mango, tamarind paste) lend a touch of brightness to earthy Latin dishes such as the wonderful arepas de puerco slicked with hoisin. Spices from both worlds create striking effects, as in a Thai shrimp lettuce wrap, a messy but inspired jumble that gets an extra kick from its scattering of chorizo, and in palomilla, a grilled beef tenderloin with three kinds of pepper. Toasted and pulverized seeds—whether sesame or pumpkin—add body and depth to all manner of sauces. The least interesting plates are those in which the kitchen plays it straight, as in a fried spring roll filled with a mirepoix of vegetables. Alongside the wilder visions, it is unaccountably dull.

Sandoval has a handful of restaurants around the country—the original Zengo is in Denver—but the food doesn’t eat like chain fare. And the party goes on.

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Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.