All words: Riley Croghan
All photos: Sam Higgins
Two weeks ago I wrote up a behind-the-scenes look at the world of menu tastings alongside a preview of Zaytinya’s awesome easter menu. No, the review business is not always how you imagine from such Hollywood movies like Ratatouille, or, well, actually just Ratatouille.
Except that’s exactly how it went down last week at Chinatown’s Zengo, when they debuted their Hanoi/Havana test kitchen menu, and we sampled and photographed everything on the menu for you to drool over. Here’s what we recommend.
Drinks – So, Zengo is known for their mojitos, so it may not surprise you that this menu includes a variation on that drink. The lemongrass-lychee mojito comes with a chunk of lychee (John’s was the size of a golf ball) and is infused with a lemongrass based simple syrup, the sweetness of which fairly dominates the drink and masks any flavor of alcohol. If that sounds like your jam, you should check it out. Otherwise, check out the cereza daiquiri. I usually gravitate toward the more masculine drinks on a menu, and while a cherry-purree daiquiri might not seem to fit that description, Zengo’s is actually rich, dark, and not overpoweringly fruity. There’s some yuzu flavoring here as well, a Japanese citrus kind of like a lime that has been popping up everywhere on the DC food scene, and has appeared in at least the last three menus I’ve reviewed. There’s also a coffee based drink on the menu, boba cafecito, which I can truly say is a drink unlike any I’ve ever experienced. It’s a bit more watery than I would expect a coffee drink to be, and the taste starts off like coffee and ends with a bite of rum, with a dash of thai chili spice thrown in the middle. It is thoroughly weird but will definitely find its fans. Lest you think me an alcoholic:
Small Plates – the softshell crab cangrejo enchilada was the far better of the two small plates on the menu, the secret to the dish easily being the inclusion of chopped peanuts, which go very far in adding taste and (more importantly) texture to the softshell. I have to admit that I haven’t had softshell crab since I was a kid; the circumstances of which became family lore that can’t really be described in a post about food porn. Just suffice to say it was a pleasant surprise. There are also the morcillas, pork sausages that are technically flawless, served with a side of white beans that are reminiscent of both your standard brown-sugar beans, and a bean salsa.
Large plates – So there’s a catfish dish, the cha ca thang long. Its probably your best bet if you’re hunkering for a spicy dish, and the spice is definitely where most of the flavor of the meal hides. Unfortunately, I had about 4 bites of so-so, spice-free fish before hitting the one bite with a wallop of heat. Hey, though! Yours may be better.
You would be safer going with the roasted pork shoulder pasta, the lechon asado vermicelli. The ratio of pasta-to-meat is similar to a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, but the pork is fucking incredible. Its smoky and crisply fried, and really the only thing I could knock this dish for was not including more of it.
The menu truly (and finally) shines with the chicken dish, though. The lemongrass arroz con pollo is a cut of chicken crowning coconut rice, sofrito and mango salsa, all excellent accompaniments, and all crazy outshined by the chicken itself. “Tender” is an understatement.
Now back to your regularly-scheduled food porn.
The menu runs from April 1 to June 30