Zeng Chinese Restaurant shows so much promise

The vegetable noodle soup at Zeng’s isn’t only delicious; it’s beautifully colorful. (Alex De Vore)

Restaurateur Jason Zeng sure is having a hell of a run in the local restaurant game. Not only has Zeng opened eateries like Dumpling Tea, Sushi8 and Dumpling Café across downtown Santa Fe in recent years, his newest project, Zeng Chinese Restaurant, has already garnered the sort of attention that most new businesses can only dream about—and he’s got robots on the staff.

Without warning, Zeng opened last month in the El Sendero Inn within the space that once housed the Santa Fe Bite burger joint. If you’ve yet to visit since the burger days, you’ll hardly recognize the interior now, but Zeng has transformed the aesthetic into a fantastic element of his dining experience. Gone are the gas station signs and various other Americana-themed bric-a-brac and tchotchkes. In their place, a clean and minimalist decor with a creamy yellow paint job, faux marble tables and paper lantern-esque light fixtures that saddle the fence between a cool contemporary feel and more traditional Chinese design. Zeng has also dispatched a pair of service robots that flit around the restaurant, both on their own and in tandem with servers.

For robotic and myriad other reasons, Zeng has enjoyed no shortage of local buzz lately. From the internet to the real world, it feels like Santa Feans are talking about the new Chinese spot wherever you go. The consensus, however, seems to be split between fairly intense love and borderline hate. Is Zeng Chinese Restaurant a winner? For the most part, yes.

I arrived with a companion in the early evening, mainly in a bid to beat the dinner rush. Zeng was already packed and bustling with activity, however, though it felt more lively than overburdened. We recognized some of the diners as locals; others, we assumed, were hotel guests visiting from far-off lands and likely grateful to find a restaurant attached to a hotel that lands somewhere between expensive fine dining and disappointing continental breakfast. Despite the glut of customers, we were greeted quickly and warmly and seated within moments, and our server Lynn was quick, courteous and friendly throughout the night.

The menu at Zeng featured a number of dishes that will be familiar to devotees of Dumpling Café. Both the vegetarian and bacon spring rolls, for example, are available ($6), and having enjoyed the veggie version at Dumpling Café in the past, we began there. Some diners might find Zeng’s spring rolls closely resemble egg rolls, but the thinner wrapping made each bite a little crispier than their eggy brother, and the vegetables inside were clearly freshly cooked mere moments before.

Everything after that became a blur of noodles, veggies, meats and sauces. Zeng’s menu is not particularly huge, but it does contain so many enticing items it’s hard to make decisions expeditiously. Do you get white rice, chicken fried rice, shrimp fried rice or pork fried rice? Do you choose from the robust lineup of soups, or do you go the noodle route? What of dumplings and buns? What of kimchi, salads and, perhaps for the kids, chicken nuggets with fries? Maybe we panicked, but the next thing I knew, I exited my body long enough to hear myself ordering chicken fried rice ($14.99), pan fried pork and cabbage dumplings ($9.99), vegetable fried noodles ($13.99), vegetable noodle soup ($13.99) and the broccoli beef main dish ($17.99).

“It’s too much!” my companion shouted.

“We need to try everything!” I practically screamed.

Dishes arrived as they were ready, rather than all at once, and our dumplings came first. I’ve had the same basic item at Zeng’s other restaurants and rather liked them, but these were easily the best I’ve had from within his empire—or in Santa Fe, period. The pan fried iteration surely beats the steamed, as the golden-brown crunch and crust made for a satisfying texture as I bit my way through to the pork-filled insides. The cabbage gets rolled up into the meat for another bit of contrasting texture, and there is so much flavor that one needn’t even worry about using any sort of sauce.

Similarly, the vegetable noodle soup and vegetable fried noodles were both distinctive and delicious in their own ways. The soup was a piquant combo of fresh baby corn, zucchini and scallion, with a nest of underlying noodles that soaked up the flavors of the broth without breaking down under its moisture. The overall soup became particularly heavenly when eaten in tandem with the shiitake mushroom included with the veggie fried noodles. Yes, these two dishes were similar, but still contained entire worlds of disparate tastes.

We couldn’t say the same for the broccoli beef. Though its simple yet colorful presentation was delightful, there was no flavor of which to speak. I’m not saying it tasted bad by any means—I’m saying it didn’t taste like anything at all, save the included carrots, of which there were too few. Additionally, the broccoli was undercooked and hard to chew, which was rather disappointing for a dish that set us back roughly $18.

Luckily, the chicken fried rice made up for the misstep. Not only did we find almost an entire chicken nestled within the rice, the seasoning was both earthy and borderline sweet. Even better, the leftovers made for a fine lunch the following day after a night spent mingling in the fridge.

And even though one of the server robots approached our table for no particular reason at one point, the smiling animation on its screen gave off anime vibes rather than those of, say, the Terminator. All in all, then, Zeng Chinese Restaurant might be the most promising arrow in its owner’s quiver. The patio outside sat empty beneath the forming rain clouds on the night we visited, but could become a summer hotspot. Besides, there are a handful of other dumplings to sample and plenty of other noodle dishes without which I’m not sure I could call myself a food lover.

Zeng Chinese Restaurant

311 Old Santa Fe Trail, (505) 396-0310

+Best dumplings in town; excellent interior

-Beef broccoli was tasteless


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