The Secret Quality That Makes Mexican Food So Damn Good

Sazón is the talent of mastering acidity, seasoning, tradition, and technique in a Mexican kitchen. It is not a skill that one learns by simply going to cooking school or working at a nice restaurant. You will know right away if the cook possesses it...

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Jul 28 2016, 11:00pm

Sazón is a word in Spanish that has no direct counterpart in English. It may be occasionally used to describe the degree of seasoning used in a dish, but in Mexico it is more commonly used to explain the cook's intangible, deft ability to balance flavor.

In short, it is a talent of mastering acidity, seasoning, tradition, and technique. It is not a skill that one learns by simply going to cooking school or working at a nice restaurant. It is an ability to understand and communicate the flavors of food successfully, time after time, no matter what you are cooking. In Mexican food, sazón is a major component, and you will know right away if the cook possesses it upon your first bite.

Some cooks have good sazón, and some cooks don't.

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A molcajete at Pez Cantina

This hard-to-describe quality—not unlike the Japanese fifth taste of umami in food—is a little harder to master if your heritage is not Latino and you didn't grow up with flavor bombs every day, which makes chefs like Bret Thompson of downtown LA's Pez Cantina a Mexican food unicorn, of sorts.

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Bret Thompson and his wife, Lucy, at Pez Cantina

After working at the Patina restaurant powerhouse group for over a decade, working alongside Roy Yamaguchi in Hawaii, and marrying a woman from Guanajuato, Mexico, his sense of sazón is remarkable. The marinade in his yellowtail ceviche tostadas is fiercely bright and garlicky. The flavor and flaky texture of his empanadas, made from corn masa and filled with butternut squash and goat cheese, will make you wonder why you've never had a Mexican-style empanada before.

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Butternut squash empanadas from Pez Cantina

If you're a well-traveled enthusiast of Mexican food, you know that hitting all the right notes in dishes like ceviche is a lot harder than it seems. Even some very notable Mexican chefs don't hit them at times. It calls for a fearless use of lime juice that would even considered offensive to some who can't hang with the tang, and even a bit of selflessness to not cheap-out on the quality of fish. Nonetheless, Thompson makes the process of mastering sazón seem effortless.

When asked about his sazón abilities, he simply responds with, "I guess I have a little bit of a knack for it."

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Guacamole at Pez Cantina

Upon further interrogation, he reveals that his confidence in a Mexican kitchen comes from a lifelong study. He attributes his comfort with its established flavors with the hundreds of Mexican immigrants that he's worked with over his 19-year career as a chef in and around LA. "Growing up in kitchens, I've had a lot of Mexican culture around me, my entire life. As a chef, I like acidic, bold, and spicy flavors. Mexican food contains all these." I'm sure his wife, Lucy, who manages Pez Cantina's front-of-the-house, has a lot to do with his obsession with sazón, as well.

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Shrimp aguachile at Pez Cantina

His story is not too different than the dozens of other chefs around the world who decided to open up a taqueria or another similar fast-casual concept after getting burnt out on cooking French, Italian, and other European cuisines. For him, he transitioned from being a corporate executive chef overseeing 28 restaurants to owning a Mexican restaurant after specializing French food and a career in ice cream-making at MILK, one of LA's first gourmet ice cream shops, back in 2008. He is a native Angeleno, too.

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Ceviche at Pez Cantina

However, what sets him apart is his respect for tradition, humility, the proper pronunciation of Spanish words, and those aforementioned sazón capabilities. His decade-long practice of French technique comes out every once in awhile, like in his braised beef cheeks served in a salsa verde, but his food will never, ever veer into fusion. His appreciation for the cuisine runs too deep for that. I have a feeling that his wife will make sure that it stays this way.

The restaurant is about to turn two years old and he is probably LA's most underestimated chef doing Mexican food. "It's one of the most dynamic cuisines in the world and we are lucky to have it just south of the border. Mexican seafood and everything that it stands for is like heaven to me. It is so complex and so simple at the same time. There is always, always something new to learn."