A Venezuelan restaurant with picture-perfect eats.
Picture, if you will, an exotic destination—any one will do—and in that exotic destination, a majestic old hotel, the kind with 18th-century courtyards and shady passageways crumbling picturesquely. And in this hotel, an invaluable concierge, the kind that shares the address of a local’s restaurant willingly.
Picture, if you will, that restaurant, its gauzy blue curtains and bar, long and low as a jetty. Picture the local fishermen and American expats elbow to sun-burnished elbow, and the flags trimming the bar back fluttering in the breeze of the grandma fans fixed to the drop ceilings since before the most recent revolution.
Picture the hostess. Picture how in the humidity, a dark, rogue curl has freed itself from its bobby pin, bouncing like a broken mattress spring as she leads you to your table. And picture, if you will, that table, where a little folded sign awaits your arrival.
Picture the sign, its black background and white trim, “RESERVED” coursing across it in flowing cursive. Picture, if you will, Havana in the ’30s, Rio in the ’40s, Acapulco in the ’50s, because that’s what this tuxedoed sign—a throwback to the American supper club, calls to mind.
But really, picture Venezuela, and more specifically Puerto la Cruz, a beachfront pueblo on the Eastern coast where local women make ever-present arepas the old-fashioned way with freshly ground dried corn. Picture one of these women, Judy Suzarra-Campbell, making the patties like her grandmother made them: fluffy and kernel-flecked, grilled, split like an English muffin and filled.
Now picture Bob Campbell, a tall, redheaded, blue-eyed former semipro cyclist from Northeast Philly—“el Vikingo” to the Venezuelans while he was living in Caracas in the mid-’90s. Picture him meeting Suzarra-Campbell, but forced to head home soon after. Picture him returning to Venezuela in 1997 and marrying Suzarra-Campbell five months later.
Just picture the newlyweds moving to Philly, and the restaurant they opened together in 2004 on a gritty Spring Garden corner. Picture that restaurant, Sazon, with its gauzy blue curtains, vintage “RESERVED” signs and otherworldly arepas filled with cuminy black beans and queso (domino) or succulent shreds of chicken (pollo). And just picture the dry bar, locals-lined and flags aflutter, where the jewel-toned jugos naturales of guava, sour sop and passion fruit are just as intoxicating as anything hard.
Picture the hostess, now your waitress (and the only one in the place), and the spiral curl that sways like an anemone as she confidently handles nine tables at once. Picture her suggesting small cups of the vegetarian 16-bean soup (mind-body-and-soul-satisfying) and cilantro-sprinkled sancocho de carne, a traditional Venezuelan hangover stew of squashes, pumpkins, corn and beef, because considering what else you’ve ordered, you’ll be way too full.
Just picture the soft Champion sweatpants hanging in your closet at home, because that’s what you should’ve worn to Sazon. Picture the portions, generous for such little coin, and how full you are by the time the gargantuan asado negro arrives. But picture the fork, and you lifting it anyway, slicing through the tender steak’s black jacket of caramelized garlic and unrefined brown cane sugar, and savoring.
Now picture the dessert menus, telling of 13 types of truffles and 24 types of hot chocolate. Just picture how upset Campbell—Sazon’s resident self-trained chocolatier—would be if you came all this way and skipped dessert. Picture the various farmers—cacao in Venezuela, cow in Jersey, berry in Lancaster—you’re supporting by indulging at Sazon, where the beans are fair-trade, the cream and milk are grass-fed and the berries grown locally and organically. Picture the barrels of good karma coming your way.
Picture those truffles, three clever little ganache orbs hand-rolled with accents like blueberry port and powder (the Smurf) and Three Springs sour cherries with chipotle (la ponzoña), and the thick, glossy hot chocolate named la cuaima after the ex-girlfriend who originally brought Campbell to South America. (The colloquial Venezuelan translation for “cuaima” is “psychotic bitch,” says Campbell—fitting for a bittersweet hot chocolate that starts smooth with Mexican cinnamon then sneaks up on you with a fiery tri-chili burn.)
Picture your next meal at Sazon, before this one is even finished. Picture what it would be like to live around the corner—mornings filled with fresh passion fruit juice, nights full of hot chocolate. Picture the apartment rentals section of Philadelphia Weekly … and how nice it would be if all restaurants had Sazon’s pride. Really. Just picture it. ■
941 Spring Garden St. 215.763.2500.
Hours: Tues.-Wed., 5:30pm-9pm; Thurs., 5:30pm-10pm; Fri., 5:30pm-11pm; Sat., 11am-11pm; Sun., 11am-9pm.
Atmosphere: Vibrant and casual, like an expat bar without the booze.
Judy Suzarra-Campbell makes arepas like her grandmother made them: fluffy and kernel-flecked, grilled, split like an English muffin and filled with delicious sandwich makings.
Dinner with Luke Palladino