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Last Thursday my wife and I had dinner at Richard Sandoval's restaurant in Treasure Island in Las Vegas, Isla. This is similar to Zengo his restaurant which is scheduled to open this month in D. C. http://modernmexican.com/rs.htm

Isla won the "best of Vegas" award for 2004 from Las Vegas magazine. His Denver outpost won a similar award from Denver magazine and his San Francisco restaurant is highly regarded. Maya, according to that harbinger of excellence and taste Zagat, in New York, is given 24 points for food ranking ahead of Rosa Mexicano and only two points behind the city's highest.

Isla made me long for Rosa Mexicano.

I am not a fan of Rosa Mexicano.

Isla is known for tableside guacamole and 90+ tequilas. Costco has a remarkably good guacamole which is sold in translucent packets, four to the package. Each of these is superior to the green glop that we were served in Vegas. The chips that accompanied these were unusual in that they were considerably thicker, more irregular fried corn curiosities that neither of us cared for. Salsa that accompanied them was imaginatively presented on a two tiered bowl with the top tier housing three different salsas, the best of which was a watery chipotle.

I am obsessed with tortilla soup. I have eaten this all over the United States from El Paso's Camino Real cafe (the best) to (insert name of city). From supermarkets to dumps which have never had another gringo stumble up to their counter to upscale white tablecloth Southwestern temples of hoity toity excellence I have pursued Great tortilla soup.

The search did not stop in Las Vegas. Certainly not at Isla at Treasure Island.

Shrimp ceviche was decent, several steps below the excellent ceviche at Coastal Flats or Guajillo. Queso fundido was good-but not as good as what we had at the nondescript Mexican at the Venetian the next night. A red snapper special disappointed while a boneless pork chop sauced with driblets of cream corn interspersed with mole was actually delicious-almost a Great dish! Side dishes of rice and pedestrian beans made me long for Rio Grande/Uncle Julio's though.

A signature dessert which incorporated very good commercial Cinnamon ice cream and excellent bottled caramel was an appropriate finish to this $150 dinner for two. Three watered down "uptown" margeritas with Grand Marnier and top shelf tequila factored into this.

What can I say? Las Vegas should have great Southwestern food-it's not that far from Phoenix or L. A. Albuequerque's Garduno's has an outpost there (benchmark guacamole and chili colorado that clears any nostril) as does Bobby Flay who some have called New York's best although I'm not certain what this means. Anyway, Isla/Zengo is coming here.

My experience in Vegas was not one to make me stand in line on 7th street until it opens. Hopefully, because our standards are above those of Las Vegas (!) we will be gifted with a restaurant that lives up to the excellence Denver and Las Vegas magazines and Zagat honored their outposts for. Of course I am assuming that Denver, Las Vegas and New York know what exemplery Southwestern and Tex Mex should taste like. Perhaps remarkably, over the years, I have found that great Tex Mex is extremely difficult to find in these cities. San Francisco does have this. But I doubt that any of the taco trucks there which are truly excellent are listed in Zagat or any restaurant guide. And the several mom and pop restaurants in their version of our Riverdale are rarely written about in any review just as the best of Amarillo, Lubbock and El Paso are rarely reported in English in any publication.

I have lowered my expectations for Zengo. I hope I am wrong to have done this.

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I am obsessed with tortilla soup.  I have eaten this all over the United States from El Paso's Camino Real cafe (the best) to (insert name of city).  From supermarkets to dumps which have never had another gringo stumble up to their counter  to upscale white tablecloth Southwestern temples of hoity toity excellence I have pursued Great tortilla soup.

This is great! I mean, I laughed, so it's alright!

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A signature dessert which incorporated very good commercial Cinnamon ice cream and excellent bottled caramel was an appropriate finish to this $150 dinner for two.

This is the remark that made me laugh out loud. Great review, Joe.

How many mediocre, overpriced Tex-Mex, or Mex-Mex plces does the Penn Quarter need?

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What can I say?  Las Vegas should have great Southwestern food-it's not that far from Phoenix or L. A.  Albuequerque's Garduno's has an outpost there (benchmark guacamole and chili colorado that clears any nostril) as does Bobby Flay who some have called New York's best although I'm not certain what this means.  Anyway, Isla/Zengo is coming here.

Border Grill at Mandalay Bay is the best Tex/Mex/Southwestern I've had in Vegas and right up there with the best I've had anywhere.

Much better than the overpriced meal I had at Mesa Grill in New York last year, although I hear that the Vegas Mesa Grill has better food than the New York location. Or is this just another example of a place in Las Vegas that gets higher marks just because it is in Las Vegas.

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I would hope people would give this place a chance. It may be part of a quasi-chain of the budding Sandoval empire but it is a very nice space that is very well priced. Not everything is a smashing success; however in ventures such as this where the food tends to be an afterthought it seems as though, from what I have tasted thus far, the food is right up there competing with the surroundings.

This place is not Tex-Mex or Mex-Mex, it is (cover your eyes) another attempt at fusion, this time with a "Latin-Asian" slant! However, whether one likes this restaurant or not it does provide several nice touches, including a ceviche bar and some interesting maki rolls. Also, given the prices at Indeblue and Oya, the tasty cocktails here are extremely affordable.

I have not been to Isla so I cannot comment on JoeH's posting; I am however a fan of the Zengo outpost in Denver. If nothing else I find this place interesting and given the prices I can see myself going there every so often when I am in the area. Obviously, it does have several kinks to be kind but given time I am sure they will be ironed out and in the end I think Zengo will add nicely to the DC restaurant scene.

NB: They had a soft opening last week and are scheduled to open some time this week.

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Alan Yu, formerly of Cirtonelle and the Executive Cef of JG's 66 in New York,is the opening chef of Zengo. He is a friend, but also an great talent. He will pull off the Asian-Latin Mix with elegance, style and grace. I wish Alan and all the rest at Zengo good luck and think that after all the trendy white leather rotating table joints have been long shuttered Zengo will still be going strong.

I usually don't plug for a "celebrity" outpost (see reference paulimoto) but Alan is good, I mean wicked good so there's my angle.

Edited by brendanc

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The menus posted on their website, www.modernmexican.com, do show significant differences between Isla and Zengo. However, I must admit to a personal bias: I find it rare when a second or third outpost in a different city for a chef is even close to being as good as where he built his reputation. I realize that there are exceptions to this but I believe these are few. I also believe that restauranteurs and chefs from other cities moving here have differing expectations than myself. Morton's, Ruth's Chris, Capital Grille, Legal, Olives, Rosa Mexicano, Roy's and numerous others do good to very good versions of their "home" restaurants. I do not believe that any of them are as good as their original was BEFORE expansion started. Often, in fact, after expansion the original also suffers. (The original Morton's in Chicago is a shadow of what it was in the '70's.)

Citronelle is superior to what it was before Michel Richard moved here. Olives here is not as good-not nearly as good-as it was in Boston when Todd English was in the kitchen. In the mid '90's I had three dinners in one week with Emeril Lagasse in the kitchen on Tschoupoulitas street that, at the time, I thought challenged for best in America. Emeril's has cloned itself (and Delmonico) around the U. S. and none even approaches the original. Norman Van Aken in the kitchen at Norman's in Orlando was a memorable dinner; two nights later with him back in Coral Gables it was a different experience.

In the 1980's Mama Ninfa was in the kitchen making her own tortillas on Navigation boulevard in Houston. In the early '90's her cloned outposts closed one by one. None even approached the excellence at her original which Newsweek once called Texas and America's best Southwestern/Mexican/Tex Mex restaurant.

There is not a single restaurant in Las Vegas that is as good as the restaurant that its celebrity chef gained his/her reputation at.

You note Alan Yu: it is encouraging that he is opening the D. C. restaurant. But what about Denver? His name is still on their website. What happens when he leaves here? Will the restaurant there be as good with him gone?

At the trade show I attended in Vegas last week a friend who lives in Columbus, Ohio told me that he had one of the best dinners of his life at Alex on Tuesday night. On Thursday night my experience was not the same. (I have a post about it on the out of town board.) While Alex has exemplery service in a luxurious setting the food is below at least four restaurants in the D. C. area for what is put on the plate.

Columbus has nothing on the level of here. Or Las Vegas for that matter despite all of the celebrity names.

And this is my point: Washington (mentioned in the United flight magazine this month as one of the six best restaurant cities in America) along with New York, San Francisco, Chicago and possibly one or two others is worth being the HOME CITY for a chef; not an outpost for one who visits occasionally.

This city's best restaurants are usually opened by home grown talent (Traci O'Grady, Jeff Black, Cathal Armstrong, Cesare at Tosca, etc.) or talent trained in a kitchen under a chef who moved here and grew their talent and reputation with us (Citronelle, Roberto, Fabio, Kinkead-coincidentally three of the first group apprenticed in kitchens of three of the second). When they stay here and venture on their own we profit. Their taste, their perspective, their value judgments, their effort and the opportunity to realize a dream.

But when they move here for a celebrity chef's outpost they are entrusted to reproduce his values and tastes-his dream-as best they can. This is different.

I do not remember Phyllis Richman being especially kind to a couple of outposts which opened here in the early '90's. I also remember a discussion five or six years ago when the Striped Bass was considering moving here and how good it might be in relation to the Philly landmark original.

Still, there are successes which sometimes match the excellence of the original. The Prime Rib from the day it opened in 1976 was every bit as good as the Baltimore original. (Of course 40 miles apart is different from several hundred or an ocean apart.)

I sincerely hope that Zengo realizes its potential-and remains at that level. If it does we all profit I would just rather a chef multiply in the city he lives in rather than try to maintain a level of excellence that he has to fly to. I believe that we are worthy of this today. I also applaud Eve, CityZen, 2941 and others who stay or return "home." (Alan Yu? Hopefully.) We are better, our standards are higher because of them.

This is also why, for years, I have promoted taking advantage of chefs such as Fabio, Michel and Roberto in his Laboratorio. They provide extraordinary experiences on par with anything in this country. One day one or all of them will be gone. Perhaps to Denver, Las Vegas, San Francisco, New York..... For their own Zengo or Olives or there.

Until then they are gifts to us; I believe that when they are gone their restaurants will not be the same. In the meantime we should go to their restaurants, at least once if we have never been. Just as Jean Louis and Jimmy Sneed the day will come when they are not available to us and are sorely missed.

Zengo, Morimoto and more to come: there is hope for D. C. and its future attracting the best of elsewhere. My hope is also that they will know that our expectations are the same as where they built their reputations.

We deserve that.

I look forward to trying Zengo. And Richard Sandoval's restaurant in San Francisco.

Edited by Joe H

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Zengo, Morimoto and more to come:  there is hope for D. C. and its future attracting the best of elsewhere.  My hope is also that they will know that our expectations are the same as where they built their reputations. 

Spoiler: I believe le Cirque is being drawn to the Penn Quarter Gravity Well o' Disposable Income...

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Placido Domingo was there - why don't you ask him?

And ask him what he thought of those EMBARRASSINGLY CHEESY dancers - he looked like he sorta enjoyed them!

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Placido Domingo was there - why don't you ask him?

And ask him what he thought of those EMBARRASSINGLY CHEESY dancers - he looked like he sorta enjoyed them!

Dang! You mean I missed PD AND the ECDs?

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Ah, the dancers and the odd floating doughnuts over the stairwell...some said they looked like potatoes or paczkis, but I'm sticking with jelly-filled doughnuts (a decor accent, not the dancers).

In all seriousness, the space was much less Disneyfied than I was imagining, and I had a chance to meet Alan briefly. I'm eager to give the place a shot. And I must have eaten about 30 of those little cinnamon sugar churros that were going around at the end.

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I was impressed with my first and only Zengo visit last year in Denver, that perhaps was colored by my continuing impression of Denver as a culinary wasteland (not counting the fine -wait - very fine - fully ethnic restaurants and Potager on Capitol Hill) but I think not.

I look forward to giving this place a go based on that visit. The flavors were fresh and vibrant and I apologize that I can't name a standout dish but it was a blur (not just because of the cucumber mojitos) of small dishes complicated by the business hosting aspect and the 9 people doing the ordering. If my memory serves there were no real clunkers out of at least 15 different dishes tried and a few that though I cannot name recall as quite tastey.

That was fusion food that sounded scary (and believe me before I tried it I was eye-rollingly skeptical :lol: ) and it turned out to be a treat. I wish them the best.

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I had dinner at Zengo and was very impressed. I think it has energy and is a great addition to the DC dining scene (though I wish they would turn the fun Latin music a little louder to create even more energy!). The space is beautiful and well designed. They have a fun cocktail list, even though most of the drinks are on the sugary/sweet side, so after a round of mojitos, we switched to wine.

I must say...they have one of the best edamame I have ever had in my whole life. Its mixed with some sort of oil and salt, and its absolutely perfect (we ended up ordering a second order!) They have some sort of edameme with pork mixed in (?) bt we had the regular one. I then had the mahi mahi ceviche which was in a coconut/lime sauce which was great. The lobster Sushi roll was good, but a little too much rice (overwhelmed the flavor of the fish). I tasted the tuna tataki salad which was WAY overspiced. Ended with the Churros and Chocolate desert which was great.

Overall a great restaurant!

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I stopped by Zengo yesterday for a dinner of appetizers at the bar, and now I am concerned. This addition will make it so much harder for me to pick where to eat. Everything was excellent!

I shared a bunch of appetizers with my husband and a friend: Edamame X and O style; the Angry Zengo Roll; the Eel roll; the empanadas; the dumplings; and the tacos. Then, we shared the Churros (to be dipped in warm chocolate and cream) and the dulce de leche turtle cake. To drink, I had the Mojito Pina and the cucumber mojito (forgot the name). I also tried the mango mojito.

Everything was excellent! Honestly, I was amazed at the quality of each dish. My favorites (based really just on my own general preferences) were the Mojito Pina, the Edamame, the empanadas, the tacos, and the churros. I can't wait to go back and try more though.

In addition to the amazing food, the bar staff was also excellent. They are really getting to a great start!

As for the decor, it is really cool. I have only a few complaints: The first is the bathrooms. You basically fall into the entrance of the women's room when heading for the bathroom. Once inside, it is unclear whether it is a unisex restroom or not. It is not; it is the women's restroom. That was fine for me to figure out at that stage because I am a woman. And, I wouldn't really care if a guy were in there. But, I am sure that they will have to make that more clear somehow (other than a sign on the floor) because it is sure to cause a lot of awkward situations. Second, the bar stools are too big. They do not fit, and thus the waitstaff is constantly bumping into them. Third, what is with the hanging whoppers (or dingleberries)? They are just weird. I know that sounds like a lot of complaints, but really I thought so much of it only because of how cool it was in general (and that I was there with two interior architects).

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