The Place: Zengo: 395 Santa Monica Boulevard, Santa Monica, (310) 899-1000.
The Hours: Monday through Friday, 4-7 p.m.
The Deals: $6 Latin-Asian Cocktails and Wine, $3 Asian and Latin Beers and $5 Small Plates.
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The Digs: One of Mexican chef Richard Sandoval's restaurants in the newly remodeled Santa Monica Place, Zengo's bar and happy hour seating area is situated on a patio perched above the Third Street Promenade. With its décor, featuring stark lines and modernist patio furniture, the feel is more metropolitan than mall. Adding to the effect is the view, composed of brick buildings and rooftops, although we are fully aware of our cloistered state between the CB2 and the dinosaur topiaries; there is this rare sense that you are in a city. The crowd is equally grown-up. Collared shirts, little dresses. Beside the patio is a long fire pit that, along with a heater studded white awning, keeps the entire area warm. So even as the temperatures dip with the setting sun, we could enjoy our frosty $3 Dos Equis in strappy sandals even in this weather.
The Verdict: The happy hour menu is a good value because the selected cocktails and small plates are exactly the same as their full price counterparts on the regular menu, which averages $7 to $10. The cocktails are mixed fresh with house-made fruit juices and syrups and strong pours of branded liquors like Leblon cachaca. However, three of the four were overpowered by one too many wedges of crushed lime, making them taste almost identical. Each of the small plates are enough for two or more. However, like the cocktails, most of the dishes were muddled in terms of flavor. The Thai chicken empandas tasted mainly of lemongrass and the shrimp vegetable potstickers of brine.
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The highlight of menu, even amongst the non-happy hour items we ordered, was the hoisin pork arepas. Arepas are corn cakes from Venezuela and Colombia that can be stuffed or topped with meats, cheeses or vegetables. There are a couple of places that make arepas in L.A., but they tend to be on the heavier side of sublime. Zengo's are by far are the best rendition we've tried. They are glossy and firm on the outside, but yielding and almost custardy in the middle. The hoisin adds just enough sweetness to the rich pork, which is actually lightened by the delicate acidity of the crema and nuttiness of the black sesame seeds. Each $5 serving contains 3 mini arepas, so when going to happy hour with more than one friend, definitely budget for at least $20 worth.
Overall Grade: A-