Open Tab: Zentli thrives off locally sourced blends of flavor


File photo by Rachel Schlueter

Zentli features local art adorned over its vibrantly colored walls. The Mexican restaurant utilizes locally sourced ingredients.

Jake Epstein, Assistant Sports Editor

Nestled in a cozy corner establishment southwest of campus, Zentli can be difficult for students to find at first. However, the vibrant color scheme and upbeat music reverberating against the art-filled walls make it easy to lose yourself inside the confines of the new Mexican eatery.

Located at 1813 Dempster St., Zentli opened its doors this winter after a two-year delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic and serves up locally sourced Mexican street food Tuesday through Sunday.

Given the restaurant is named for the Nahuatl word for corn, it was only fitting for us to start with a $7 esquites dish. While the price tag appeared a tad steep at first glance, the immense amount of fresh corn and complementary ingredients made the starter well worth its bill. 

Unlike traditional elotes — Mexican street corn — that come on the cob, this dish arrived as a circular array of corn kernels. Topped with mayonnaise, cotija cheese, chili powder and lime, the corn rightfully served as the dish’s focal point, and each flavor coalesced into a palate-cleansing blend. Like a well-oiled machine, each piece of the plate played its part to elevate the appetizer into a centerpiece.

It would be a massive blunder to walk into Zentli and not order your fair share of street tacos.  There’s a bevy of options that each come wrapped in a blue corn tortilla shell. I ordered three tacos: the tinga de pollo, al pastor and asada. The three amounted to $16, and each taco seemed to one-up the previous one I dove into. 

The tinga de pollo taco came first. The dish combined a chipotle stewed chicken, lettuce and sour cream. The chicken was well seasoned and had a slight kick of spice, but the taco’s flavor somewhat faded in certain spurts. The taco was a tad bit creamy and heavy on the lettuce, but it served as a nice, filling blend of flavors well worth its $5 price tag.

Next up, I tackled the al pastor taco, which brilliantly combined cuts of pork marinated in pineapple with onions. The onions gave the taco a vital crunch, while the pineapple played the role of a tropical salsa and united with the onions as in a well-orchestrated dance number.

Following a piquant proverbial pineapple party, it was hard to consider how that taco could be beaten. Right on cue, I picked up the asada taco.

While this didn’t look like a million dollars, its simplicity drove the $6 dish over the top. The skirt steak —a juicy and tender cut of meat — was perfectly cooked and built a tremendous foundation for the rest of the plate. With freshly cut onions and cilantro playing second fiddle to the meat, every bite proved to be a consistent explosion of flavor. The taco didn’t try to do too much: it leaned heavily on its protein source, and the freshly sourced ingredients took the item over the top, making it the highlight of a star-studded meal.

After a thoroughly impressive opening two courses, it was time to satisfy my sweet tooth with a $7 flan.

The first bite was overwhelmingly sweet, but a soothing aftertaste soon left me searching for more. The airy consistency was superb, reminding me of a summer cup of custard. The dish capitalized off a strong caramel flavor and capped off the meal in excellent fashion.

Zentli’s dazzling decor and locally sourced cuisine make the restaurant well worth the trip. For fans of freshly made Mexican dishes in an intimate eatery, there’s much reason to carve out time to visit this new local spot.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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