Tuesday, February 5, 2019

'Tis the Sazon

By Sara Blank

With the polar vortex still fresh on the minds of many in the Philadelphia area, I maintain that the only cure for heating up is soul-warming comfort food. For gluten-free diners, look no further than Sazon (941 Spring Garden St., 215-763-2500), in the city's Northern Liberties neighborhood. I discovered that Venezuelan food was mostly gluten free when in Las Vegas last year, so I was excited to indulge in homestyle arepas closer to home. Sazon's menu is nearly entirely gluten free, with a dedicated fryer in the kitchen to boot.

The vegetarian la guacamaya arepas at Sazon
I recently dined at Sazon with two friends, and together we decided to share several dishes. Our eyes were much bigger than our stomachs - and everything sounded delicious - so we ordered a hearty sampling of dishes. We began with the yuca frita and platanos fritos con queso rallado - fried sweet plantains with shredded queso fresco on top. For our entrees, we split two varieties of arepas, or stuffed corn patties: la guacamaya (grilled eggplant, tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, spinach and avocado with sun dried tomato basil pesto) and the pabellón (shredded beef, black beans, sweet plantains and queso fresco). Thinking that we had room for another dish, we chose the pabellón vegetariano (grilled tofu, mixed with portobello mushrooms, seasoned with tomatoes salsa, and served with brown rice and black beans and sweet plantains).

Sazon's yuca frita are fried in a dedicated fryer
Every bite we took was flavorful and so different from other cuisines that the region offers. Our server, who also happened to be a co-owner of the restaurant, emphatically explained Sazon’s dedication to gluten-free safety and the tendency for Venezuelan food to be naturally gluten free. Sazon is also BYOB. Including tip, each of us only paid $36, which not only is extremely reasonable for a night out, but also included lots of leftovers. (The restaurant is cash only, so leave your credit cards at home.)

Sazon truly is a mom-and-pop shop, with authenticity, coziness and character that enhance the experience. The restaurant clearly is a labor of love of the married owners, Robert and Judith; they manage to create a welcoming and friendly atmosphere that make guests feel as though they're over at a neighbor’s house for dinner.

The pabellón dish is hearty and flavorful
Even though, with the addition of restaurants such as Puyero Venezuelan Flavor, it can no longer claim to be the only Venezuelan restaurant in the city, Sazon holds its own as a neighborhood favorite and a hidden gem. Tucked away from trendier dining locales in Center City, Sazon offers the flexibility of prime-time seating without the city's bustle.

The most exciting part of dining at Sazon is the seeming paradox of eating fried, filling, comfort food that is safe for those with Celiac Disease and won't have you checking your phone for the number of steps you took that day. During our visit, our only regret was not saving room for the drinking chocolates prepared by the Robert, a.k.a. The Chocolate Alchemist. That alone is enough to prompt a return visit before winter is over.

Sara Blank is a 26-year-old agency copywriter living in Center City Philadelphia. She was diagnosed with Celiac Disease at age 18, right when "gluten free" entered the zeitgeist. Follow her on Instagram at @SarBlank.
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