By Enrique Fernandez
Sazón's menu includes standard fare -- a traditional ajiaco stew special on Mondays, vaca frita, picadillo, fried plantains, black beans and rice -- but also trendy items like "sushi" rolls stuffed with ropa vieja and swordfish steak with mango sauce.
In many ways, Sazón ("seasoning" in Spanish, though the word is used loosely to mean a characteristic flavor) feels like the classier places that cater to the tourist trade in Havana with a mix of Cuban basics and innovative dishes that are not quite the radical nuevo cubano experiments north of the Florida Straits.
The Sazón staff is young and lively, happy to engage the diner in recommendations or come up with a variation to satisfy a curious appetite. The kitchen accommodates.
The food, though, is a mixed experience. Picadillo is rich enough in flavor to make one forget it is basically ground beef. Plantain chips, thin and crispy, are a fine appetizer, as are the tostones shells filled with ropa vieja or sauced shrimp. A ceviche is delicately seasoned. And a salad of watercress, avocado, cucumber and scallions is quite refreshing.
But, the ropa vieja apparently having run out, the "sushi" special was filled with fried grouper, with less than happy results, though I'm not sure the shredded flank steak version would have been better.
A signature, over-the-top palomilla steak with yuca and crackling stuffing was delightful one day but dry and greasy another. Fried yellowtail snapper was good enough, but no better than what one can get at local fish shacks and other Cuban restaurants.
In fact, some of the ur-Cuban recipes are just OK. Neither the rice and black beans nor the vaca frita is as satisfying as what one gets at Islas Canarias or Havana Harry's.
All over the world, one can dine at so-called Cuban restaurants. Some are as close to being Cuban as a Cracker Barrel, some seem to reach for authenticity but are shooting in the dark.
Sazón is better than any of these. But this is a Cuban town. You have to stand and deliver.
7305 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-861-4727; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon-Thurs, 11 a.m.-midnight Fri, 7 a.m.-midnight Sat; starters $2.95-$8.95, entrees $9.95-$18.95, desserts $2.95-$5.95; wine and beer only; Saturday brunch; street parking; AX, VS, MC
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Photo: Nuri Vallbona/Miami.com