In the canyons of Midtown’s Third Avenue, it can seem as if the weary traveler may never find sustenance. Buried among the steel-and-glass lobbies of office towers and outsized ATM centers are the occasional glossy fast-food franchise or faded Chinese takeout, but even steam-table delis are few and far between.
Clearly, Zengo saw this problem and figured they couldn’t help but do better. In one of those haunted spaces that has seen a hundred restaurants try and fail, a temple of happy hour and date night has emerged triumphant, like a mid-priced, dimly lit phoenix from the ashes.
There are Zengos in Denver, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif. In each of those towns, it’s the sort of restaurant that is immediately recommended to visiting New Yorkers—interesting and multiethnic in a cosmopolitan way but shinier and larger than you know you’d ever find in the city.
That is, until you stumble into the New York Zengo and it feels just as mystifyingly glossy, 8-foot tables for two set 20 feet apart, carefully gnarled beams suspended from the three-storey ceilings. A mezzanine overlooks the main dining room, accessed by a spotlit, glass-floored walkway. The basement tequila bar is draped with velvet curtains and wrought iron choir gates on the windows add a gothic element.
The restaurant’s concept is Hispanic-Asian fusion, though you would be forgiven for not catching on to this from the decor.
Thankfully, the menu makes it very clear, with dishes like charred tuna wonton tacos and carnitas rice noodles with hot and sour sauce. Every item has at least one element that leaps out to hit you over the head with its cross-cultural audacity—chorizo in the gyoza! Nori in the ceviche!—when they’re not lost in a muddle of intentions, like the yellowfin tuna flatbread with gouda and sambal aioli. If your head hurts from trying to parse that one, welcome to the club.
Zengo’s chef, Richard Sandoval, is a well-regarded Mexican chef who established himself years ago with Maya on the Upper West Side, expanded his brand of highly executed traditional flavors across the country and then, presumably, got bored. Zengo began, like so many Broadway experiments, out of town, and after a successful run Sandoval decided to come back to the big town.
At 9:30 on a Tuesday evening, he seemed to have a hit. It’s pathologically impossible for that space to feel busy, but the majority of the tables were full: large, mixed groups drinking more than they were eating, smaller, Sex-and-the-City-esque groups drinking more than they were eating, pomaded and tanned couples trying to look like they weren’t drinking more than they were eating.
They all had the right idea. The cocktail menu is where this improbable fusion works well, togarashi subbing in for the spice in a margarita with no raised eyebrows, anejo tequila and hibiscus slipping almost seamlessly into a Manhattan. Some of the food is, in fact, quite good, and made to accompany a night of drinking, but it all suffers from the high expectations set by its own description.
If you didn’t know you were supposed to be tasting acai and Sichuan pepper in that spring roll dipping sauce, you’d think it was pleasantly sweet, rather than disappointingly spice-free and cloying. If you weren’t scanning the plate for the phantom jalapeno in your soup dumplings, you might notice they were pretty tasty bundles of mildly spiced pork.
A meal at Zengo can be a baffling experience, starting the moment you walk in the door and think you’ve ended up in Omaha’s up-and-coming arts district. But don’t dismiss it out of hand, dooming yourself to wander the canyons again. Just remember to do as the Romans do and, when in Zengo, drink more than you eat.
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