Sazo’s Latin Grill
101 Bowie St.
(210) 223-1000, ext. 6806
Very good room-service fare. Problem is, it’s a restaurant.
Gazpacho soup disguised as salsa; lump crab salad
11am-11pm daily; breakfast at 6am
$7 to $22 for lunch
Making decent food daily is harder than it looks. Ask any restaurateur: labor is often unreliable, suppliers fickle, and the number of people who truly know how to run a restaurant’s operations is much smaller than anyone thinks. It’s no small feat to simply present passable fare.
At the same time, slogans like “home of the decent quesadilla” or “tortilla soup that elicits no strong opinions” won’t drive much business. Meaning restaurants with unremarkable menus will frequently feel the need to sell themselves as providing something more: mood lighting (so you don’t notice what’s on the plate), exotic fare (so you have no frame of reference to judge what’s on the plate), and steeper prices (to make you feel unsophisticated if you don’t like what’s on the plate.)
Sazo’s tries all three techniques, and it’s still a lousy place to go for lunch. Despite their website’s boast that the restaurant was designed by cutting-edge architects, it’s actually a simulacrum of a California Pizza Kitchen. The color scheme is different, but the flatware, tables, and fixtures are eerily reminiscent of CPK.
Further belying the “authentic Latin scheme” are the poorly concealed buffet chafing dishes lining one wall. Whatever semblance to the Old World the designers were trying to achieve, the smell of Sterno sends it flying out the windows (from which the River Walk, prominently mentioned in Sazo’s marketing materials, cannot be seen). But the décor does take you on a journey — one can easily imagine a voice on the intercom announcing skeet shooting off of the lido deck in 30 minutes, along with where to report for the Legionnaires’ vaccine.
The truth about Sazo’s Latin Grill is that it’s not a Latin grill at all: it’s the dining hall of a room-service kitchen, and priced accordingly. That being said, the lump crab salad was excellently prepared and very fresh, without being drowned in lime juice or cilantro. Both are present, but sparingly enough to allow for a subtle jalapeño vinaigrette to work its charms. And there are certainly worse places to order a chicken quesadilla: Sazo’s provides just the right proportions of chicken, cheese, and cumin. The chicken tortilla soup earned the “decent” slogan above.
But Sazo’s falls short when it tries to satisfy exotic tastes. It’s best that the diner not know what a pibil sandwich is supposed to taste like; if you don’t, it’s a pretty good sandwich. If you’ve visited the Yucatán, the absence of sauce is blatantly apparent, causing one to wonder if they’re supposed to believe that the Mayans preferred French fries and Vlasic pickles.
I struggled to understand the salsa. It was thin, but not comes-in-a-five-gallon-jug-that-wasn’t-shaken thin. It was bright, with just the right afterglow of spice, but it still felt out of place. Then I took a spoonful without chips and discovered it’s not salsa at all: it’s a spicy gazpacho. I’d buy it by the bowl.
The place is also a logistical pain in the ass. Though the website indicates that parking in the Marriott is free with restaurant validation, it isn’t. The wait staff is so accustomed to serving hotel guests that we had to remind them we weren’t charging the meal to a room.
Sazo’s success would be a welcome enhancement to the River Walk, but if they want to appeal to anyone besides the captive audience who’s already ordering their room service, they’ll have to stop pretending to be a Latin grill. The visiting businessman from Omaha may not know the difference, but San Antonians do. Everyone being a foodie these days, offering decent fare just isn’t enough.•