Where: 1610 Little Raven Street
Pros: The fun Asian-Latin fusion cuisine at this Richard Sandoval restaurant is full of bold flavors and unexpected flavor combinations. The current test kitchen mash up of China-Brazil makes for vibrant and memorable dishes.
Cons: If you fall in love with a test kitchen dish it might be gone by the next time you come in. But its all part of the adventure—come with an open mind ready to experience new flavors and you’ll enjoy yourself.
It’s hard to believe that Zengo, Denver’s beloved fusion spot, has recently celebrated its tenth year in business. While fusion cuisine is certainly nothing new, Zengo manages to keep the menu from feeling tired or dated with a constant influx of fresh ideas that come from the test kitchen.
What is the test kitchen? Richard Sandoval developed the concept as a way to mindfully generate new dishes combining the cuisine of two always-rotating countries, one Asian, and one Latin. All of Sandoval’s chefs get together and experiment with the ingredients of both countries until they have created a number of menu dishes that marry the two cuisines. The dishes are then featured at Zengo for a few months at most, before the next round of countries are chosen. This challenge not only forces the chefs to be creative, but also keeps things interesting for the diners. Test kitchen items, including cocktails and even desserts, are always marked with a TK on the menu.
The current test kitchen fuses the flavors of China and Brazil, an intriguing blend that that makes for unexpected and often delicious results.
Walking in to Zengo, there is a definitive stylish and vibrant energy to the place, which was busy even early on a weekday. Our server, a seasoned veteran of the restaurant, was refreshingly candid with us. “The dishes are experimental in the true sense. Sometimes they are real winners, but other dishes are not as successful.”
His words certainly applied to the test kitchen cocktails—the strawberry caipiroska was a real winner, a gingery summer sipper. The monte alegre, on the otherhand, was a little busy. The combination of elderflower liqueur, campari, lychee, and pitu cachaca rendered the flavors a bit muddled (cachaca, for those that don’t know, is basically Brazilian rum, and the key ingredient in caipirinhas).
Luckily, the TK dishes coming out of the kitchen under chef de cuisine Andrew Robitaille’s leadership were more successful. Sandoval definitely assures that the fusion dishes are not simply thrown together—they have to make sense not only on paper but on the palate as well. We started with the Szechuan eggplant pastel, a parcel of dough filled with eggplant, tofu, and mushrooms and fried until crisp. While I was hoping for a touch more heat, this dish was wonderfully savory and packed with umami flavor. Although it didn’t even need it, the chimichurri dipping sauce was a nice touch.
I also enjoyed the kung pao lamb chops asado, a delicious dish that didn’t have much to do with kung pao. While I have a soft spot for that Chinese takeout staple of spicy veggies and peanuts, this lamb dish was a very loose interpretation kung pao’s flavors. It was, however, absolutely delicious. Enough fat had been left on the chops to keep the meat juicy and flavorful, and the brothy cachaca sauce and smooth yucca puree on the plate were perfectly seasoned.
I was curious to try the dessert that the test kitchen had developed using Brazil and China as inspiration, the guava rangoon. The plate arrived artfully dotted with plenty of colorful strawberry guava sauce, fried rangoons filled with cream cheese and guava, and a generous scoop of dulce de leche ice cream. This was a unique dessert, to say the least. Reminiscent of fried ice cream, yet fresher and more vibrant with the strawberry guava sauce. The tartness of the cream cheese kept the dish from being to sweet.
As much as I did enjoy the test kitchen’s dessert offering, I was smitten with the modern Mexican bar, a menu staple at Zengo. This dessert combined a chocolate bavarian mousse, peanut nougat, and crunchy crust for a elevated take on a snickers bar. It offered everything I love about desserts—salty-sweet balance, texture, and of course, chocolate.
Whether you choose items from the test kitchen or off the regular menu, Zengo offers serious food with a fun, innovative approach that will always be relevant. A word to the wise: these Brazil-China test kitchen items will only be around until September. Make sure to stop by and give them a try before you miss out. Or stop by and see what the next global mash up will be. Either way, dining at Zengo is always sure to be an adventure.
All photography by Lindsey Bartlett.