Sazon Ticket

Bring your appetite and your sweet tooth to this Venezuelan diner.

By Lauren McCutcheon
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 9, 2005

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941 Spring Garden St. 215.763.2500.
Cuisine: Venezuelan.
Prices: $3-$13.50
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 11am-9pm; Fri.-Sat.,11am-10pm.
Smoking: No
Service: Nice, but please, servers of the world: Start writing down orders instead of trying to memorize them and getting them wrong every time.
Atmosphere: Diner, with candles.
Food: Downright casa cooking.


You say potato, I say french fry. You say tomato, I say pizza pie. You say diner, I say cheesecake, elephant ears, chocolate eclairs, carrot cake, peach pie, clown sundaes, grilled cinnamon buns, homemade oatmeal raisin cookies and double chipotle layer cake.

What, you say? Don't you mean blue-plate specials, creamed chipped beef, meatloaf sandwiches, scrapple omelets, three eggs, home fries and toast?

Indeed I don't. I mean airy homemade pastries, the ones you always overlook while attempting to drown your hangover with oily hash browns and questionable side meats. My bold contention: The dessert course is the unsung hero of diners everywhere.

Sazon-which isn't really a diner but kind of is-does its genre proud dessert-wise. The Venezuelan restaurant's three happiest endings are pale tres leches cake with an invisible middle band of condensed milk moisture; quesillo, a Baileys-spiked cream cake so custard-like that it's chunky with eggs; and the best of the bunch-a barely sweet chocolate flan.

Add a cup of obscenely rich hot chocolate-made with Venezuelan and other cocoas and cream-and you've got one hell of an afternoon snack. (Honorable mentions go to cinnamon-y but a slightly dull raisin rice pudding and a just-fine coconut flan.)

Chef Judith Suzarra-Campbell and her husband Robert Campbell opened Sazon in November. Judith's from Puerto la Cruz, Venezuela. She grew up cooking alongside her whole family.

Robert's from Philly. This is his first restaurant management gig. After three months of searching for an address to call their own, they settled on a former Greek diner at Ninth and Spring Garden. The price was right.

Sazon's diner-ish digs don't comply with the interior-design formula of most BYOBs. There are swivel seats at the counter, vinyl booths the color of burnt caramel, Formica tabletops and tile floors that all hark back to the days when "no-wax" and "Sweet'N Low" were nouveau. Sure, there are candles for each table at night, and shiny silver ice buckets for white-wine drinkers, but overall the place still looks like a diner.

As well it should. The food is as pretense-free and as belly-fillingly true as any fare you'll find at the Melrose, Penrose or Red Rose.

Suzarra-Campbell makes just about everything from scratch. She gets the yellow and white corn flour for the arepas and empanadas from Venezuela. The cheese for the teque�os is Mexican Chihuahua-she's still trying to source Venezuelan casa de manon-and she squeezes most of the fresh fruit juices herself.

The three aforementioned appetizers come in miniature in the sampler platter. They and their accompanying ramekin of subtle tomato salsa are surprisingly mild. Robert says the mildness is typical of Venezuelan food. Judith says Americans don't like their food too spicy. Either way, they're good eatin'.

Colombians eat the dense, disc-like arepas biscuit-style. Venezuelans treat them like buns, stuffing them with seasoned shredded chicken, dark and savory beef, black beans and melted cheese, or airy scrambled eggs mixed with tomatoes. Like the crispier, darker tricorn-shaped empanadas, they're delicious-and deceptively filling.

Sazon's teque�os are tasty cigarillo-looking improvements on the mozzarella stick, with thin phyllo-like dough crusts and gooey white cheese insides.

The menu describes the pernil sandwich as pulled pork. It's not. It's two slabs of slightly dry but nonetheless tasty chop meat served sandwich-saving tomato mayonnaise.

Meatballs come in a neat row of a half-dozen garlic- and adobo-perfumed orbs resting on a strip of red tomato sauce (Robert's contribution) and sprinkled with cheese, which looks like crumbled feta but tastes like fresh, saltier mozzarella. The roll, we gotta admit, is a little tough.

The burger, however, is la bomba, as they may or may not say in Venezuela. Seasoned meatloaf-style with onion, garlic and parsley, the patty comes piled with a slab of ham, a slice of avocado, LTO, more of that pink mayo and-oh heaven-a fried egg. It almost tastes good for you. But not quite.

Dinner platters are so filling, you'll nearly wish you'd skipped apps. Most come with tender boiled cassava or garlicky sweet plantains, which also display a prodigious talent for serious in-stomach expansion.

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