Richard Sandoval doesn’t need any introductions or promotions. That’s why I was delighted when the General Manager of Zengo, Frank Ortiz, agreed to have me write a feature story to spotlight their new menu items. I invited Anca Grindeanu, a bartender at the Carving Room, to be a guest blogger for RUNINdc

Before the MCI Center, the home of the Wizards and Capitals was built in 1997, Chinatown was struggling with many restaurants and stores barely hanging on. Then came a wave of restaurants owned by celebrity chefs, such as Zaytinya by Jose Andres and Zengo by Richard Sandoval, which opened as Chinatown became less Chinese. 

Zengo which translates to “give and take” in Japanese served up trendy fusion food in an upscale, eye-catching setting. One of the first things that struck me when I walked in was the mysterious orbs hanging from the ceiling as I ascended the stairs. The walls were full of colorful textures and murals with decor from all around the world.

Zengo was a sexy place to get a seat and be seen. Centrally located next to the Chinatown Metro, romanticos and politicos came here to feel glamorous and enjoy the haute cuisine.

We sat at the communal table by the bar, and the staff served us their prix fixe menu.

I took a sip of my ginger-infused bourbon, a sniff of vanilla and ginger to my nose with a slight, almost buttery scent. “Hey Anca, how’s your ceviche and Peking duck tacos?”

“Incredible!” she replied as she sipped on her passion fruit cocktail. “The fusion of Asian and Mexican is surprisingly successful.”

Anca nursing a cocktail

“Yes, what a fun place with spectacular food infused with creativity,” I replied. “Richard Sandoval definitely covers all the bases here.”

Zengo which opened in 2005 was Richard Sandoval’s first foray into D.C.. Since then he’s opened El Centro, Masa 14, and Toro Toro.

“You should check out Toro Toro,” Frank suggested. “It’s a Pan-Latin restaurant that features Latin fusion.”

The next day I gave Heather Freeman’s PR firm a call, and we set a date for another food tasting event.

On June 19, 2014, we held our event at Toro Toro. There we were immediately transported from McPherson Square to South Beach, Miami. If Zengo was sexy and exotic, Toro Toro is glamorous and adventurous. Upstairs is Latin-American fare and downstairs is an opulent lounge where Latin performers take the stage with late-night salsa dancing. The decor is swanky and the atmosphere is cozy and intimate. It’s Zaytinya meets Fogo De Chao and the drinks are boozy and delightful.

As a steak aficionado, I had previously enjoyed the AYCE “Rodizio Experience” where the servers brought out Brazilian skewers and small plates ad infinitum for $79. But today, we would focus on small plates: sweet corn empanadas, plantain chips with smoked guacamole, swordfish dip, tuna tartare, fish tacos, grilled pineapple, and a lot of caipirinhas and mojitos. It also helped that happy hour was from 5-8 pm.

Everyone seemed to be enjoying the food, sangria, and killer conversation. 

I found Yoomie Huynh and Kanita Williams at the hors d’oeuvres table digging into the corn empanadas and talking shop.

“You’re always catching me eating!” Yoomie exclaimed. 

Yoomie Huynh and Kanita Williams

“I grew up in Staten Island with a large Latino community, and yo amor empanadas,” Kanita said. “Can actually taste the flavor and texture of the creamy corn filling.”

Yoomie took another bite and amazingly cramming down a pie never made her look any less attractive. “This reminds me of the khinkali — meat-filled dumplings — I had in the Republic of Georgia where I served with the Peace Corps in 2011.”

“And Chito take it easy on the caipirinhas,” Kanita warned. “Remember, you’re the host tonight, so you better act like one.”

“They’re definitely easy to drink, but hard to pronounce,” I replied. “And everybody already expects me to lead by example. Don’t forget I was in the Navy.”

“I guess you’re be visiting the bathroom often tonight.”

“As long as I can pet the cowhide on the door, I’ll be fine.”

The usual suspects, Wayne Manigo and Orlando Darden were large and in charge.  A few bloggers were also in attendance such as Jessica de Jesús from the Dining Traveler and Laura Hayes from Best Thing on the Menu. Jess is a Marine Corps Reservist who was one of the first women to complete male/female integrated Marine Combat Training in 1997.  She was last stationed in Brussels and is now a Marine Corps field grade officer. Khoi, from Albuquerque, NM is an Air Force officer stationed in the Pentagon. In his free time, he travels to major food hubs all over the country to satisfy his epicurean tastebuds.

Khoi Tran

“I only have three great loves: people, food, and travel. Everything else is a consideration.” 

“You should become a chef then,” I suggested.

“I had considered going to culinary school after college,” he said “Cooking is indeed an honorable calling.”

“I happened to have attended culinary school, courtesy of the US Department of Veterans Affairs,” Wayne added. “And one of my favorite gigs was cooking for D.C. Central Kitchen.  We got up really early to work in the kitchen, but it was for a good cause, so I couldn’t complain.”

“Yeah, I know all about working early in the morning and being sleep deprived,” said Sarah Berghoff, an ER physician in Southern Maryland. “But that’s commendable — taking a stand against homelessness.”

“And we’re glad you’re here.  How’s work?” I asked. “Not too stressful I hope.”

“Busy as usual. But I always try to make time to go for a run and yes to attend RUNINOut events.”

“You’re the best sweet Sarah, and my hats off to all the doctors and nurses in the frontline who are saving lives every day.”

I was also delighted to see Deb Santos chatting with Khoi and Orlando.  All three had met each other at Tara Temple earlier this month. 

“How’s the website going?” She asked.

“I would be lying if I said everything is hunky dory.  Have just been overwhelmed lately.”

“I’ve noticed you’re still drinking quite a bit — have you started cutting back?”

“I always have the best of intentions, but when I get to my events, my adrenaline just flows, and I can’t seem to say no.”

“Are you reaching a point where your body and mind start to wear down? You need to stop and check-in and give yourself an opportunity to heal.”

“Yeah, I know. it’s been a huge struggle for me. I’m quite disappointed at myself.”

“You shouldn’t be. You’ve accomplished so much with your startup and events. Stop dimming the light and start feeling your magic.  Take a moment to reflect on all you have done, all you are doing and where you’re headed. Big things are happening — don’t hold yourself back.”  

When guests were leaving, I made sure to thank everyone for coming.

“C’mon Sarah, for old time’s sake, let’s get a pic together,” I said. 

“Ok, but only if you promise to send me a copy,” she said.

Sarah Berghoff

“Of course, it’ll be all over the internet by the time you get home.”

“Hey Khoi, please take a picture of us in front of the entrance. Are you staying for salsa dancing?

“Gotta get going for the next foodie adventure,” he replied. “Lots of  restaurants to visit, too little time.”

“Well don’t let salsa get in the way of progress. BTW, how much longer are you going to be at the Pentagon?”

“I’ll be getting ready to deploy to Kosovo for a peacekeeping mission later this fall.”

“Lucky you – Kosovo is a heaven for food lovers. I hope you love the food there.”

“I’ve never tried any dish that I disliked. Food to me is just an extension of culture.  It can be different from what I grew up eating. It can be unusual if I haven’t had it before. But I’m betting it will be surprising in the best way.”

“Then what do you think of durian or balut?”

“Tried them both. The smell actually doesn’t offend me.”

“Oh, I heard that Richard Sandoval will be opening a Toro Toro Gastrobar in Serbia pretty soon. Maybe you’ll get a chance to visit and enjoy the sights.”

“Wow, Chef Sandoval is slowly taking over the world, one restaurant at a time, and yes, I’ve heard that Balkan women are very beautiful.”

Orlando Darden Jr

Had a great time last night at a new D.C. Brazilian restaurant, Toro Toro with my very good friend Chito Peppler whose company, Runin Out was the host of last evening’s menu tasting event! One thing is for sure if you attend his events, you”ll experience cool restaurants, serving delicious foods, and you”ll get to meet/ network with some of D.C.’s most interesting people, who are guests at his events!