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The Chocolate Lunatic and the Union Transfer Bump .

March 16, 2012

Text by Kim Maialetti. Images by Jessica Griffin.

Standing behind the chocolate counter at Sazon, Robert Campbell says, “I know I’m one of the best on planet Earth when it comes to my drinking chocolate. No one can touch it.”

It’s a bold statement but Campbell, 41, is prone to them.

“I know people think I’m a lunatic,” says the man who owns and operates the restaurant with his wife, Venezuela-native Judith Suzarra-Campbell. “It’s very rare you meet somebody as original as me.”

No argument there. Campbell is definitely an original and may very well be a lunatic, too. But it does take a bit of craziness to do what he’s done.

Consider that nearly 20 years ago, he dropped everything to follow a girl to Venezuela after meeting her while bouncing at the original Café Nola on South Street.

When in Venezuela, he joined a gym. One day, he couldn’t help but notice a woman doing aerobics for four hours straight – Judith.

“I stole her from her boyfriend and she stole me from my girlfriend,” Campbell says. “Our first date was, ironically, at a place called Ciocolatte. They didn’t have good chocolate.”

For her part, Suzarra-Campbell, 44, says it was love at first sight.

“I’ve always loved white guys,” she says, looking fondly at her husband, who, with his light skin, bald head and six-foot-plus frame, could pass for a Viking in a different setting. “He was my Prince Charming.”

Charming? Not Campbell.

“I’m not always charming,” he says, just in case someone starts to get the impression there may be a soft spot beneath that gruff exterior.

The two show off a snapshot from their wedding day in Venezuela. She is in white and he is in black – gym clothes. They are hugging a tree in the middle of a public park.

“It was good. It was us,” Suzarra-Campbell says with a smile.

They honeymooned in the mountains of Venezuela, with his mother and her young nephew in tow.

“I had to have sex with my wife in the bathroom,” Campbell says.

Neither Campbell nor his new bride gave much thought to what came next when they settled back in the States. With no plans, he, a semi-pro cyclist, found work in a bike shop and she landed a job at Walmart. She quickly went from folding T-shirts on the retail floor to counting cash in the finance department. When she learned that Walmart needed someone to assemble bicycles, Suzarra-Campbell enlisted her husband’s help.

What started out with a few hours a week at a single store, turned into a full-time business building bicycles for Walmarts around the region.

But while things were going okay in the States, Suzarra-Campbell found herself missing the tastes of home and lamenting the lack of good Venezuelan food here in Philadelphia.

“How hard could it be to cook your own food?” she recalls asking herself.

And with that, Sazon was born.

Located at the corner of 10th and Spring Garden streets, just a few doors down from a shooting range and the site of the first Hershey’s candy store, the restaurant has served traditional Venezuelan food with a healthy twist since opening in 2004.

“Latin food without the heart attack,” Campbell calls it.

Suzarra-Campbell grinds the flour for the arepas – corn patties stuffed with various savory fillings – by hand. She only uses corn or olive oil for frying and also offers vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options.

The Patacon, the restaurant’s number one selling dish, is a tower of freshly grilled vegetables sandwiched between two saucer-sized tostones, which are fried green plaintain cakes. It requires some strategizing before digging in. Tip: start at the bottom to avoid an avalanche of vegetables on your plate – and the table.

Sazon features other traditional dishes including empanadas, arroz con pollo and asado negro, a dish of slow-cooked beef coated in a thick, sweet brown sugar syrup.

Dessert offerings include three-milk cake, flan and churros with chocolate sauce for dipping, as well as a long list of hot chocolate combinations that range from the Clasico to the Smurf (with blueberry port wine and blueberry cream).

Campbell, who used to steal money out of his dad’s jeans pocket to buy chocolate, also added another combo that hasn’t made it on the menu yet, the Unnamed. Inspired by a recent performance by The Slackers at Union Transfer, Campbell blended his drinking chocolate, which he roasts himself, with Knob Creek bourbon, star anise and apricot cream.

Campbell credits the opening of Union Transfer with filling an additional 25 tables per week.

“I thought it was going to be nothing but goofy kids and hippies with no money,” says Campbell. “I like how eclectic they are, how they’re bringing in people from all over the world.”

John Taylor of the ’80s supergroup Duran Duran recently ate at Sazon.

Owning a restaurant seems second nature to Campbell and his wife. She grew up making arepas from the time she was old enough to see over the stove. He grew up with a mother who made 25 different types of cookies at Christmas time.

“I got spoiled from having a mom who cooked good food from scratch,” Campbell says. “I had holes in my Converses but we ate good food.”

Sazon is open for dinner from Tuesday through Sunday, and serves brunch on weekends, starting at 11 a.m. To make a reservation call (215) 763-2500.

Check out other dining options near Union Transfer here.

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