Zengo has always been the weird cousin in the Richard Sandoval restaurant family, the guy with his shirt unbuttoned a little too low, his breath smelling of sweet wine and peppermints, the relative who -- if you had to pick someone -- would be the relative most likely to have a troop of Girl Scouts buried in his basement.
That said, Zengo is also (and perhaps unsurprisingly) my favorite of Sandoval's Denver restaurants -- the only one I've gone out of my way to visit. It is neither entirely Mexican nor entirely un-Mexican, but rather a shockingly smart and original fusion of Mexican flavors with Asian presentations and French technique. It was a wildly original restaurant when it opened (just like Tamayo back in the day), and with its Washington, D.C., twin, it remains an almost singular expression (unlike Tamayo, which was copied by almost everyone).
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I've often wondered whether Sandoval was surprised that absolutely no one followed him to Mexi-Frenchy-Asian land once he'd laid his course and set sail. I've often wondered if anyone could. Mexican by birth, CIA-schooled and French-trained in New York at the height of Manhattan's fusion madness, Sandoval has always struck me as a guy who's perfect for exactly this restaurant. His seared-prawn tiraditos shocked with tequila; hamachi with shiso, soy and pickled papaya; and arepas de puerco with hoisin-jacked pulled pork are not just clumsy amalgamations of flavors and styles, but honestly innovative and sensible fusions. And on my most recent visit, tasting Sandoval's best inventions as translated by chef de cuisine number God-knows-what, I felt not like the guy coming late to a hot spot already falling out of favor, but like the guy smart enough to stick with the place that so many others seem to have forgotten. The room is still beautiful, if less crowded than when Zengo opened. And while that distracting nightclub vibe remains, I'm willing to put up with it for another bowl of lovely black cod in chipotle miso, another order of carnitas over rice noodles with Chinese hot-and-sour sauce, another dish of halibut ceviche with lychee and coconut, or another plate of foie gras gyoza in ponzu-and-truffle sauce. Actually, for that I'd put up with almost anything.