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Sazon Latin Fusion in Culver City

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Welcome back to Dining On A Dime a bi-weekly feature in which Lizbeth Scordo surveys LA's cheap eats—often obscure, ethnic, unsung restaurants—proving that dining on a dime is alive, well, and quite tasty in this here city. Where do you think she should go next? Drop us a line.

The thing that makes Culver City eatery Sazon Latin Fusion especially charming is its earnest attempt at sprucing up a nothing-special Washington Boulevard storefront (far from any of the neighborhood’s trendy restos). Black fabric slipcovers decorate what would otherwise be ugly vinyl chairs, the walls boast a fresh coat of pumpkin paint, the lights are dimmed, and a back hallway is converted into an extra dining area with a local photographer’s framed nature photos on display. It’s not a fancy place, but it’s got aspirations, and I appreciate the effort owner and chef Claudia has made here. She spends most of her time cooking, but occasionally marches out of the kitchen stopping to exchange a few sarcastic quips with customers. It's a tiny space, so most of the tables are full when we arrive on a weekday evening a little after 8PM, and empty by the time we leave.

Though Claudia is from Mexico, her cooking style hails from a variety of Latin nations, and she proves it to you by noting on the menu which dish comes from which country ... or countries. "Peru-Mex" is printed next to her Pollo Saltado entrée --chicken cooked with potatoes, jalapeno, peppers and tomatoes. While she calls her Carne Encebollada -- sliced beef with sauteed onions and garlic, served with white rice and beans -- straight-up Cuban. There’s also a handful of Mexican a la carte items like tacos and enchiladas, along with a few salads and more sophisticated vegetarian choices, like a platter with three types of squash, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, chayote, and whole pinto beans.

Sazon proudly touts the fact that its food is cooked in healthy oils and with little or no! salt, so fans of super greasy stuff and lard lovers will have to look elsewhere. Even the deep-fried empanadas manage to stay light, with a flaky, airy pastry crust that makes you want to eat several. The spinach version is stuffed with a moderate amount of gooey cheese and bright leafy spinach that’s not cooked to oblivion. The soup of the day (lentil) is brothy and fresh with whole lentils and chopped veggies. It tastes homemade, as it should.

For entrees, we want Claudia's recommendations. When my husband asks how the Chicken Sazon is, she quickly responds with, "C'mon, it's got the restaurant's name on it!" Translation: Go for it. As for me, she goes back and forth between the coconut breaded white fish which she calls “a beautiful dish” and the Camarones en Salsa, shrimp cooked in a garlic and wine sauce. I tell her to surprise me. And that she does. While I thought for sure she'd bring me the fish, it's the shrimp that arrives, and I do love it. The plump shrimp are swimming in a flavorful lime-spiked tomato broth with cilantro, onion, and diced carrots, alongside Cuban style black beans and white rice, all of which is perfectly cooked. Claudia overhears the waitress telling me that the tortillas aren’t homemade after I inquire and chimes in with, “I know a truck!” as she whizzes by. They’re good enough.

As for my husband’s Chicken Sazon, which comes on the bone, stuffed with plantain paste and topped with mole sauce, the meat is moist, and the mole is nice. Smoky with a touch of bittersweetness. But, that plantain paste is dry and truly bland. It doesn’t ruin the touted namesake dish, but certainly gives it a bit of a black eye. And that’s too bad because everything else has been wonderful.

Still, Sazon Fusion is the kind of neighborhood restaurant you want nearby. A comfy, reasonably priced place serving fresh, homemade food to locals ? who can still fit into their jeans the next morning.

310-390-9501

All dishes: $2.95 to $12.95

— Lizbeth Scordo

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