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The kitchen at Zengo is a mess, a riot of white jackets, ice and fire. I count six, eight, maybe as many as ten cooks bouncing, spinning in place, shuffling plates and pans and sheet trays; hear raised voices -- no particular words, just the sharp cadence of a chef or expediter trying to hold together all the cogs and gears of a machine going downhill fast with the wheels coming off. I've got ears in my bones for that kind of thing still, and it sends an electric charge from my belly to the back of my throat. It makes me want to jump up and knock out those antojitos for table 54, to fry something or yell at someone. The reflex, even after years away, is strong.
1610 Little Raven St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
Bangkok ceviche: $9
Azteca ceviche: $9
Angry Zengo: $9
Langosta roll: $12
Big eye: $11
Wonton tacos: $10
Black cod: $23
Pollo Maya: $18
There was this scene during the first season of The Restaurant, a close-up of one of the cooks -- not a star, not someone whose name came up on a key at the bottom of the screen whenever the camera focused on him, just one of the foot soldiers. A long sequence in the basement galley had just finished -- with lots of screaming and yelling about orders coming slow or not at all -- when the cameras snapped to this guy in a slo-mo cutaway. He was standing there, sweat pouring down his face, the veins pulsing in his neck, his teeth clenched like he was considering murder. He reached up to wipe his forehead, the back of his hand tattooed with scarlet oven burns, and just before the show went to commercial, he looked almost straight into the camera with an expression that clearly said, What the fuck am I doing here?
That poor bastard's face, his eyes, his scars should have been featured on all the billboards and advertisements for The Restaurant. They certainly would've been better than Rocco DiSpirito's dopey, grinning, pretty-boy mug. When was the last time you saw that little prima donna with a knife wound or an oil burn? The real story of that series -- the story of these kitchen pros living and dying under the glittering movie-star smile of an absentee chef -- was captured forever in that two-second close-up.
And the essence of Zengo lies in that view of the kitchen. Not in the resumé of executive chef/owner Richard Sandoval -- by no means the same sort of vile, prancing deadbeat that Rocco seemed in The Restaurant, but no longer cooking in the trenches, either. Not in the gorgeous nouveau-nightclub lines of the dining floor, where Mexi-melt nightclub beats overlie the tumult of laughter and conversation that fills the place, and not in the nightclub-beautiful waitresses in their matching strappy, backless uniforms and dueling tattoos, all looking like they were cloned specifically for service here. No, this is a galley story, where success or failure hangs on the ability of these few guys (bossed by Sandoval's chef de cuisine Troy Guard, late of the Hotel Raffles in Singapore) to translate into dollars and applause a menu that, on the surface, seems laughable.
Latino-Asian fusion. That's what Zengo promises, and it might as well be Vietnamese-Bulgarian or Inuit-Cantonese. It sounds ridiculous, a gimmick in an industry becoming desperate for them, a cuisine with no tradition, no historical antecedent -- just another culinary Mad Lib that's interesting only because it hasn't been previously attempted. Because why would anyone want to?
Back at the bar, I drink my beer, watch the cooks working on the bare edge of control, listen to the ruckus. It isn't panic I hear -- panic has an entirely different sound, sporadic and traveling outward in waves like sonic booms to rattle the flatware. I'd encountered real panic on an early scouting mission -- happy hour, Friday night -- when I'd fought my way through the crowd to the podium, only to be told forty minutes, minimum, even though there were tables held open. Assuming that was an attempt to spell the overwhelmed kitchen crew, I decided to come back another night.
Now the bartender delivers my fusion sashimi -- thick squares of big-eye tuna dressed in lime juice and avocado oil kicked up with pomegranate. Next, a langosta quote-unquote sushi roll. The delicate flavor of good lobster is buried in a Mexi-French habanero-chive rouille, and just as I pop the last piece in my mouth, someone in the kitchen drops a whole plate of something, the sound sharp and brittle above the noise at the bar. I decide that Zengo still isn't ready for me, pay my check and leave.
Funny thing, though. Before I make it to my car, I want to go back. I stop at a pay phone and make a reservation to return in two weeks. That night, I taste tuna and pomegranate in my dreams.
In Japanese, zengo means back and forth, give and take, yin and yang. And here, the experience is all about give and take.
Take: When my friends and I return, the place is packed. Zengo is a big restaurant, and six months after opening, every table is full, the book committed through at least three turns (which is far more Manhattan than Denver these days). We wait for our table in the lounge, sized up and worked over visually by the assembled hipsterati, chastised by a cocktail waitress who comes over, lifts our beers and slides napkins under them so we don't leave water stains on the low wood table. That's something my mom would've done, hardly the sort of rebuke I expect from a beautiful waitress-clone who scowls and stops just short of waggling a finger at me for being naughty.
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