Unparalleled level of creativity, quality make Sazón a singular dining experience - Albuquerque Journal

Unparalleled level of creativity, quality make Sazón a singular dining experience

Sazón’s Enchiladas de Camaron (Shrimp Enchiladas). (Heather Hunter/For the Journal)

From flipping burgers at the iconic Bert’s Burger Bowl to “rescuing recipes from his family in Mexico” and opening a restaurant that pays homage to his culinary roots to receiving the coveted James Beard award-winning title of “Best Chef of the Southwest” and New Mexico Restaurant Association’s “Chef of the Year” in 2022, chef Fernando Olea is living his dream in Technicolor. And we are the lucky spectators.

Seven years after opening Sazón with his business partners, Lawrence and Suzanna Becerra, this magical team continues to delight guests night after night with plenty of passion – on the plates, in the air, in the kitchen and on the walls.

Clearly, the James Beard award status catapults Sazón – and Santa Fe – into another stratosphere. This highly-coveted title attracts foodies and travelers from all over the globe to experience a seriously memorable meal filled with signature dishes, special touches and knock-your-socks-off flavors and service.

Dulce Sinfonía (Sweet Symphony) at Sazón is chef Fernando Olea’s signature dessert. (Heather Hunter/For the Journal)

“I am the same person that used to have a hamburger place,” Olea says. “These awards haven’t changed me because I enjoy what I do and my staff follow my passion for the industry. And that’s the secret.”

And as we inch into February, also known as the month of love, Sazón promises a spectacular evening that will impress you and your beloved with a meal and experience to last a lifetime. Having visited twice – once on New Year’s Eve (when most restaurants push out mediocre prix fixe meals just to get through the night) and on a recent chilly Saturday night where I strolled into the bar without a reservation, Sazón is deserving of all the love and more.

Sazón’s Ensalada de Suzanna (Suzanna’s Salad) features mixed greens, mango, shrimp, shaved beets and crispy quinoa sticks. (Heather Hunter/For the Journal)

Situated in a pueblo adobe abode at the corner of East Alameda and Shelby streets, Sazón is two blocks from the Santa Fe Plaza. Look for the metal horses out front and you will know you have landed at Sazón, which focuses on what Olea calls “New World Cuisine because some of my dishes are true Mexican dishes – food I have created over the years. But I don’t want to misrepresent what I am doing. I also incorporate flavors from other cultures because food doesn’t have borders.”

A few minutes before the doors opened at 5 p.m., there was quite a line of anticipatory, hungry patrons waiting for the first of two seatings (second seating is at 7:30 p.m.). Reservations are required for the dining room, but the cozy bar nestled to the right of the host stand seats about 16 curious diners. The bar feels super festive yet intimate. The main dining room involves three interconnected rooms filled with huge pieces of art that dominate the walls and make you feel like you could be dining in an art gallery. And you are.

The artwork is mostly by Julio de Rita and is priced in the low five digits. The paintings are bright, bold and beautiful. They are great conversation starters and evoke an emotion that – when combined with the top-notch hospitality and food – is palpable. The acoustics in the rooms are spot on – you can hear your table mates, you can hear fading conversations of your neighbors and, on the night I visited, you could hear the Gypsy Kings strumming and singing in the background.

Having lived in Mexico and eaten at countless reputable and remarkable restaurants in Mexico City, where the chef is from, I was excited to finally make it to Sazón and try the food and the tequilas and sangrita, a sweet and spicy tomato juice concoction that accompanies tequila and mezcal. Sangrita is something altogether unique and absolutely delicious.

When I inquired, our stellar server, Lacy, a very well-informed member of the team, proudly boasted that they make not one but two different sangritas – the second being a combination of cucumber, mint, basil, pineapple and jalapeño. One dining companion knew nothing about this Mexican tradition of sipping tequila and sangrita. Once he sampled mine, his life shifted dramatically with his first – but not last – sip of tequila and sangrita. ¡Viva Mexico!

The next time Lacy stopped by our table, he proclaimed enthusiastically, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Together, we sipped and savored a Herradura Reposado ($18) with two different sangritas. If you only make it to the bar, let this be your introduction to the Sazón experience. With more than 100 tequilas and mezcals to choose from, you will never get bored.

When you have your beverage, a complimentary selection of five different moles arrives with three mini corn tortillas, made by El Paisano supermarket. This sampling allows guests to experience the world of moles. Tasting from left to right, it goes from sweet to spicy with the mole verde in the center. With each taste of each mole – the poblano has 35 ingredients, you will love the varying flavors – for different reasons. This is just the beginning of an extraordinary dining experience.

In two visits, I sampled and thoroughly enjoyed a lot of the dishes on the menu. The menu offers a variety of moles, impeccably prepared seafood and meats, perfectly-seasoned food, layered flavors and textures. And on both occasions, my dining companions and I oohed, aahed and wowed our way through five courses. Full disclosure – there were a few choice expletives at every bite – by every person. We were dazzled with every dish and I was hard pressed to find anything off-kilter.

Chocolate Lava Cake with Ganache and Chantilly Cream at Sazón. (Heather Hunter/For the Journal)

It is apparent that Olea is using his gift. From the high level of service and attention to detail for both the front of the house and the back of the house, to the orchestrated team approach to delivering the plates to the table, it was observed by several of us that the evening felt effortless. Everything came together as it was supposed to and that’s also the way Olea cooks.

When I asked how he came up with the idea for Sopa de Amor ($25), he says of this dish he created in 2006, “I was inspired by this combination and it came together on the first try. Warm creamy poblano soup with crab and cold amaretto foam with a sprinkle of cocoa and chile powder.”

We were instructed not to stir the soup and upon my first bite, my response, “This is heaven.”

This unparalleled level of creativity, quality and playfulness are what makes Sazón a singular dining experience in Santa Fe. But rather than tell you about the food – there are spoiler alerts – I encourage you to experience Santa Fe’s newest James Beard award-winning restaurant for yourself – choose the dining room or the bar. The intention Olea and his team have put into this restaurant exudes passion at every turn and every bite, so get ready to be surprised.

If you want to dote on your beloved, Sazón awaits. Or if you need doting on, one of Sazón’s most riveting collective talents is making each and every guest feel seen and loved. The food is made with love. Plated with love. Served with pride and love. No matter when you book your Sazón experience, I promise you will feel, taste and crave the love.

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