Zengo: Big flavors on small plates at a bottomless brunch
Brunch: it's a time-honored tradition, a mingling of friends over bottomless mimosas for chatting and gluttonous gorging on pancake stacks and egg creations. If your typical Sunday morning debate goes back and forth between heading to the reliable greasy spoon or someplace new and trendy, indecision could have you growing roots in the couch. Meanwhile, wait times at Denver favorites won't get any shorter. So that's where Out to Brunch comes in: In this weekly feature, Lauren Monitz will explore new places and revisit the old faithfuls to help you decide where to go on your next brunch adventure.
Zengo epitomizes the Commons Park neighborhood: vibrant, trendy and the "it" place to be. Richard Sandoval's refined Latin-Asian style is unlike anything you might specifically crave for brunch, but it hits the spot every time. The fact that brunch here is all you can eat and drink doesn't hurt either, when you're starving or looking to waste away the day over a mimosa or five.
See also: The twelve best brunch spots in Denver
The 411.Bottomless brunch is offered on Saturdays and Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and must be ordered by the whole table. The $35 price tag includes unlimited small plates and free-flowing cocktails (Bloody Marys, tropical mimosas and sangria), which is worth it if you're having at least two drinks. You can also opt for the designated-driver version (without the booze) for $25. If you want to take full advantage of the deal, it's best to drag your butt out of bed before noon to beat the rush, as there is a two-hour time limit per table.
I've never had to wait more than fifteen minutes for a seat -- a mini-miracle in this part of town. And if you bring your pooch, you can score a prime people-watching spot on the patio (there are a fair number of pups and their people doing the same). Zengo will also hold a table for you for up to fifteen minutes, so it doesn't hurt to call once you're on your way over. There is a complimentary valet, which is definitely handy since the area between the park and the Platte gets very busy on a nice day.
Inside and outside are two different worlds, and if you're already nursing a serious hangover, I strongly recommend the patio. On our visit, the clubby interior was vibrating with a morning DJ who didn't think it was weird to pump the bass before noon, although Zengo has since discontinued that feature. Still, if dimly lit and sexy is your thing, you'll prefer a seat inside. The patio, on the other hand, has a distinct South Beach feel, with bright lime green tables and oversized orange umbrellas -- the place to see and be seen for young families and hip twentysomethings dressed to the nines. You may not be looked down upon for showing up in yoga pants (my standard brunch attire), but it's definitely not the norm.
We opted for the designated-driver version of bottomless brunch, since it was a busy Saturday with places to be later in the day. Since we were keeping it alcohol-free (a rarity), we had the server mix us up an off-menu fruit cocktail she called the Tutti-Frutti with OJ, mango, passion fruit and a splash of cranberry, the perfect weekend pick-me-up.
The small plates are just that -- small. Most are just a few bites, and the sushi rolls are a paltry four pieces, but the waitstaff encourages ordering multiples of dishes you might like. Although it's all-you-can-eat for two hours, the servers seem to have a system down where they deliver a bunch of plates all at once and then mysteriously disappear for a while, so have a game plan of what you want next when they do reappear.
The Salmon Benedict is the must-have dish by far. I love a perfectly poached egg, and the addition of Zengo's kimchi, one of my all-time favorite condiments, knocks it out of the park. And why no one has thought to put goat cheese in a sushi roll before, I will never know. The Kabayaki Glazed Salmon Belly Roll is definitely not your standard salmon roll, but that's what makes it so good. There's a ton of unexpected flavor from spicy mustard and grilled asparagus, but it's the creamy texture of the roasted red-pepper goat cheese that makes it almost melt in your mouth.
Shrimp-Vegetable Potstickers are not typical breakfast items, but these little bites of heaven, greenish in color, have a distinct taste of spinach so they're not overpoweringly fishy. They come three to a plate -- definitely not enough. The Achiote-Hoisen Pork Arepas are South American flatbread disks piled high with pulled pork, avocado and way too much crema fresca (a thinner, runnier version of crème fresche) that pack huge flavors, including one of my favorites, hoisin sauce. Be warned, though: This one's messy and it's way easier to devour with a fork and knife rather than trying to jam the entire thing into your mouth.
Be sure to save room for the dessert round: roasted plantains with honey, butter, ginger mojo, and crema -- absolutely succulent and dripping in sugary sweet goodness -- or the pandan waffles with strawberry-guava sauce, both perfect notes to finish with.
Meh: take it or leave it depending how hungry you are
Zengo's take on a spicy tuna roll, the Angry Zengo Roll, is just okay, nothing spectacular. And while it pains me to suggest skipping anything with bacon, the bacon fried rice is rather bland (even with kimchi) and it's just extra carbs. Then there's the wagyu beef albonigas, Mexican meatballs served in a sizzling skillet. The flavors are spot-on, but the proportion of actual protein and meat to the fried onions and roasted peppers is way off. Regardless, we always get this dish just for the spicy tomato sauce, which tastes great with a fried egg.
The chicken chilaquiles, topped with an over-fried egg (no runny yolks to soften up the tortilla chips), lack depth and have a weird texture. Ditto the chorizo and egg steamed buns. I love a good steamed bun, but this egg patty has the same consistency as a McDonald's breakfast sandwich -- a definite pass when there are so many better options.
Most of the dishes are winners, though, and worth multiple orders. With a set price, there's no reason not to try a little of everything until you're sufficiently stuffed -- or sobered.
Have a suggestion for a spot you'd like to see in Out to Brunch? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.