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Enjoy Zengo in Santa Monica's tantalizing Latin-Asian Test Kitchen

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If you haven't been to Richard Sandoval's Latin-Asian themed restaurant in Santa Monica, you're missing out, just like I discovered I had been! Upon arriving on a Sunday afternoon to enjoy their current test kitchen, my friend and I discovered they had just finished wrapping up their Sunday brunch, which is apparently quite popular. More on that later, but one step inside and you'll find yourself enveloped in luxurious décor reminiscent of the Orient with dark wood accents, plush furniture, and dim, sexy lighting. You'll feel like you've been whisked away to an exotic place. There's a vast dining room, comfortable lounge area, and beautiful outdoor rooftop patio overlooking Santa Monica, with the ocean to the left. You couldn't really ask for a more ideal setting.

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Every quarter, Zengo's head chef Steven Castro and his team, experiment with the cuisine of one Latin and one Asian country, fusing the two to create unique dishes perfect for exploring and sharing. The kitchen is currently testing the flavors from Peru to Malaysia. You'll find those items labeled TK on the menu, along with the other tantalizing items on its regular menu.

Upon sitting, we were offered a cocktail off their test kitchen menu to whet our appetites. I enjoyed the Pisco Elevation, mixed with with Peru's signature grape brandy, elderflower liqueur, and lychee. It was delicious! If you're not into sweet cocktails, then your better bet is the Shiso-jito, a spin on the traditional mojito, mixed with Peruvian rum, fresh Shiso (a type of Asian mint), Fuji Apple and fresh lime.

For our first dish, we tried something off Zengo's regular menu, because we were just too intrigued by it, the Thai Chicken Empanadas. Yes, they do taste as good as they sound, if not better! Imagine plump, golden empanadas, perfectly fried and filled wtih chicken, chile poblano, oaxaca cheese, atop a scrumptious Thai red curry sauce. They are packed with with so much flavor, it's like an explosion in your mouth. I would've been content just eating these all night, but had to check out some of their test kitchen menu items, as well.

The Spicy Crab Potato "Sushi" off the test kitchen menu is a very unique and creative blend of Peruvian and Malaysian ingredients, fusing the Peruvian culinary staple potato with Malay curry. It's a mix of spicy crab atop avocado atop a soft Peruvian purple potato cake, no rice here. And to add some texture, there's a crispy corn cancha (Andean corn nut) on top. It's a nice appetizer to enjoy if you're a fan of potato.

If you're in the mood for more seafood, the Bay Scallop Ceviche is packed with flavors and spices that will have your taste buds rejoicing! My Thai friend was in heaven with this one, as the raw scallops are marinated in lime juice and served in an exquisite juice made with Thai chile, lemon/lime-orange juice, mint, avocado, peanut and crispy shallot. Served with crispy tortilla chips, you won't get enough of this one. You may even want to drink it. ;)

Another item off the TK menu, the Chicken "a la Brasa" Satay is another nice appetizer, comprised of grilled chicken skewers topped with a delicious black bean glaze made from scratch, a cucumber rocoto salsa, toasted peanut, and potatoes Huancaina served on the side.

Next, I tried what was tied for my favorite TK dish, the Arroz con Mariscos, a typical Peruvian dish, but this one fused with a nice Malaysian spin, made with mussels, scallops, calamari and shrimp, seasoned in a flavorful yellow curry with Thai basil, atop Malay rice. It was almost like a Malaysian paella. ;) The rice even has a touch of saffron in it. This dish is divine!

I also really enjoyed the TK Char Roasted Halibut. This is not your usual dry halibut. Instead, this one is juicy, prepared in a sambal (chili-based) butter sauce, with ginger chile marinade on the side, atop a charred banana leaf, served alongside a papaya salad and crispy lentil rice cake. If you're in the mood for some nice fresh fish, this is the way to go!

I was stuffed by this time, but couldn't pass up the TK dessert of Toasted Coconut Profiteroles, cream puffs filled with housemade toasted coconut ice cream, which was just heavenly, drizzled with dulce de leche, strawberry and chocolate sauce. As Chef Steven Castro explained, pastry chef Jeff Mark, makes everything from scratch and you could taste it!

Head on over to Zengo before the end of the year, December 31, to enjoy the Peru to Malaysia test kitchen. It's served daily after 5 pm. Don't fret though...they'll continue the test kitchen next quarter, experimenting with cuisine from different countries. If you're looking for somewhere to go New Year's Eve, Zengo will be celebrating with some special deals. And don't miss their weekend bruch where you can indulge in bottomless mimosas and small plates for just 35 bucks! They have a dj, as well. It apparently turns into a big party, so you definitely need to make reservations for that one. They also have happy hour on their rooftop lounge Sunday through Friday from 4-7 pm.

There is plenty to enjoy at Zengo! Give them a call at 310-899-1000 or visit their website at www.richardsandoval.com/zengosm/ for more info. Of course you could also find them on facebook and twitter. See you there!

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