Tried and true has a new, dynamic meaning at Zengo, the Latin-Asian concept from Chef Richard Sandoval with locations in Denver, New York, and Washington, D.C., plus an international unit in Dubai.
Zengo is constantly reimagining the menu via test kitchens that create specialty menu items, available for a limited time, which fuse flavors and ingredients from two countries—one Asian and one Latin.
“It’s a way of keeping things exciting,” says Graham Bartlett, regional executive chef of Sandoval’s Washington, D.C., Zengo. “In the restaurant business everyone is always changing menus. That’s exciting, but it’s not really buzzworthy.”
The test kitchens, meanwhile, serve as a creative outlet that keeps everyone from waitstaff to bartenders to guests anticipating something new.
Past test kitchens explored Malaysia, Peru, China, Brazil, Argentina, and Japan, and early this year the menu offered four test kitchen items, noted on the menu with a TK, that mingled Mexico and Korea.
“Inherently, some cuisines go well together. For me, Mexican and Korean go well,” Chef Bartlett says. “They have a lot of similarities with spiciness, vibrant flavors, and even the proteins are compatible.”
But Chef Bartlett says the chefs are careful not to force flavors together that don’t belong. Some TK items, like the Achiote Mahi Mahi Tostadas, were almost entirely Mexican in nature, while the Rhode Island Squid was pure Korean.
“But if [the cuisines] happen to come together—beautiful. Like the kimchee and tofu soup—the flavor profile is a match made in heaven.”
A few times each year, chefs from each of the Zengo locations gather to brainstorm the next test kitchen.
“For three or four days we’ll come together to cook, eat a lot, draft between eight and 10 menu items, and then we’ll pick the best ones,” he says.
Some dishes from the test kitchens might transition to what Chef Bartlett calls the core menu, or the perennial favorites. The test kitchen items have also continually evolved in format, from a separate menu to a mix of large and small plates, more recently veering to small plates because guests seem to prefer them. Guests also appreciate street food options, particularly in a form already familiar to them.
“We have tostadas on the menu, and a Mexican-style meatball—a couple of things that even though the end result is a bit wacky, it’s all about the vehicle so that guests can understand,” he says.
The menu is meant to be approachable, even though some exotic ingredients and combinations may be new to guests, like the chapulines (dried grasshoppers) that inspired Zengo chefs when they traveled to Mexico. Now, they attempt to source grasshoppers locally.
“Why go out of your way to find something that’s really bizarre if it’s going to sacrifice quality and freshness?” Chef Bartlett asks.
Even without grasshoppers, the test kitchens pull inspiration from two countries continents apart to keep guests wondering what is next.