The beautiful redhead sits at the bar, sipping a deep purple chicha morada. Her eyes lock into an intense gaze with the man before her. Everyone in the room, in fact, has risen from their chairs, with all eyes locked on the same man—San Francisco Giants closing pitcher Brian Wilson.
As Wilson, on the screen, throws the winning strike to put the Giants in the World Series, the room at Sazon Peruvian Cuisine erupts. The owners, waiters and chefs high-five the customers, toasting with a Cusqueña beer or a glass of chicha, an addictively delicious drink made from blue corn. Warm feelings permeate the room.
Sazon (Spanish for “seasoning”) is owned and operated by Juan Luis Navarro and his sons, Juan Jose, who runs the house, and Juan Pablo, who cooks along with his wife, Erica. Two other brothers, Juan Francisco and Juan Manuel, also carry on their father’s name, while mother Lucia and daughters Luisa Fernanda and Anna Luisa add a little female balance.
“We’re the only Peruvian place north of the Golden Gate Bridge,” says Juan Jose proudly. “When we opened, we discovered that there is a large Peruvian community in the northern Bay Area. It’s mostly Peruvian ladies married to American guys, and they started coming in out of the woodwork.”
The Navarros originally come from Lima, where authentic Peruvian recipes were passed down by their great-grandmother, who herself came from Peruvian, African, Spanish and Italian ancestry. Peruvian cuisine fuses different periods from the South American country’s history, from the ancient Incan empire through to the Spanish conquest, which brought in slaves from Africa and China. Further influences come through Italian and Japanese immigrants, blending indigenous foods of Peru and cooking methods of four continents into a unique taste.
Asian flavors are embodied at Sazon in lomo saltado, a stir-fry of steak strips, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, soy sauce and vinegar served with steamed rice, or with the ahi ceviche nikkei, made with ahi tuna and flavored with cilantro, aji verde (a green chile sauce), lime, sesame seeds and sesame oil. African influence includes anticuchos (beef heart), organ meat that Peruvian slave owners from long ago shunned but which remains popular in Peru.
Sazon’s menu also embraces different regions and microclimates found throughout the country. Foods from the coast, the Amazon jungle and the Andes are represented in seafood ceviches, tropical-fruit ice creams (try the exotically luscious lucuma) and in distinctly purple potatoes. One of over 200 varieties native to the Andes, Savon’s potatoes share skewer space with anticuchos, marinated in aji panca, a smoky, chocolatey, chipotle-like pepper sauce.
Although many Peruvian staples such as corn, peppers, beans and potatoes are found throughout the Americas, Sazon sources most of these through a Peruvian company, ensuring the authenticity of native varieties. The bright-yellow aji amarillo pepper, found only in Peru, gives a piquant flavor and vibrant hue to papas huancaina, a popular appetizer made with potatoes, hardboiled eggs and feta cheese. Kernels of cuzco corn served with many dishes are the size of a dime and look as if they could feed a giant.Plantains come prepared either fried with aji verde, crisped into chips or sweetened with sour cream and a spicy criolla salsa.
Other Peruvian ingredients have been deliberately left off the menu, like sea turtle and cuy, a native guinea pig widely sold throughout the country as street food. “I just don’t see a market for cuy,” explains Juan Pablo, “although it’s slowly making its way across the country from people in Miami who import it.”
Happily, to the delight of the world’s guinea pigs, Sazon has plenty of other dishes to try.
Sazon Peruvian Cuisine, 1129 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa. Monday—Saturday, 11am—3pm and 5—9pm, and Sunday, 1—9pm. 707.523.4346. www.sazonsr.com.