Palm Bay man opens Puerto Rican restaurant as ode to his favorite childhood meals

Sazon Criollo highlights the flavors of south Puerto Rico

Tony Cruz, owner of Sazon Criollo in Palm Bay
Tony Cruz, owner of Sazon Criollo in Palm Bay (Suzy Fleming Leonard/FLORIDA TODAY)

PALM BAY, Fla. – Tony Cruz loves living in Florida; he’s been here since 2010.

But he missed the flavors of Guayama, the town on the south coast of Puerto Rico where he grew up.

The measures he took to satiate those cravings may seem extreme, but Cruz couldn’t be happier. Six months ago, he opened Sazon Criollo, a Puerto Rican restaurant in Palm Bay, according to News 6 partners Florida Today.

“This is what I love to do,” he said. “I’m working for me. I like serving people, and feeding them is even better.”

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While this is Cruz’s first foray into the restaurant business, it’s not unfamiliar territory. He said his family ran a restaurant on the coast in Puerto Rico for 45 years. His father, Antonio, now helps in the kitchen at Sazon Criollo.

Just like food is different in various regions of the United States, Cruz said flavors vary in his home, too. He doesn’t want diners to compare his restaurant to food at other Latin places in the area.

“Our food is from south Puerto Rico,” he said. “Our food is not about spicy, it’s about flavor and freshness. I want people to taste the food.”

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Sazon means “seasoning” and Criollo means “homestyle.” Together, the restaurant’s name means homestyle seasoned food. Pork is slow-roasted for 12 hours. He grows the pigeon peas at his Palm Bay home. His father makes the sauce for the short ribs

The regular menu isn’t huge, just one page. It includes traditional Latin American fare such as mofongo with shrimp, beef or seafood, empanadas, chuleta enpanizada (breaded pork cutlets), chuleta kan kan (Puerto Rican pork chops), camarones al ajilo (garlic shrimp) and ensalada de mariscos (seafood salad).

“We try to keep it as simple as possible so it can be as fresh as possible,” he said.

Monday through Friday, he also prepares a quick-service hot bar with specials of the day. For those, he films a daily Facebook Live video giving the rundown.

He started a recent video with: “Hello, hello, how we doing today? Just another day at Sazon Criollo,” before turning the camera on food warming in steamer trays.

The hot bar might include rice with black beans, lentils, chicken stew, oxtail, plantains, yucca pinto beans, rice with pork and pigeon peas. Follow Sazon Criollo on Facebook for the latest.

Palm Bay reminds Cruz of Puerto Rico. In addition to pigeon peas, he grows avocados, guavas, bananas and plantains.

He left the island in 1994, when he moved to New Jersey to live with his sister. He married, had two daughters.

His daughters, Brianna, 18, and Natalie, 17, were born legally blind. He moved to Florida after learning about Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine.

Cruz moved to Palm Bay, where his sister had a vacation home and got a job at Publix. The girls enrolled as boarders at the St. Augustine school. Brianna has since graduated and attends University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

With his daughters settled, Cruz decided it was the right time to open his restaurant.

“I told them it’s Daddy’s turn now,” he said.

He continues to work mornings in the Publix produce department. Sazon Criollo is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Mondays are for cleaning, shopping and prepping for the week ahead.

“I love it,” Cruz said. “This is my life.”

In addition to his father, he has a server. That’s it. It’s a small restaurant with only 36 seats. Cruz cooks, waits tables, greets guests; he goes wherever he’s needed.

It’s been challenging, he said, but word’s getting out. He recently held a six-month anniversary party with music and dancing.

Some have suggested he add more familiar dishes to his menu, maybe offer a Taco Tuesday special. He’s hesitant. He’s serving the food of his childhood. That’s where his passion lies.

“I see myself as serving real, authentic Puerto Rican food,” he said.

Sazon Criollo is at 3085 Jupiter Blvd., S.E., Palm Bay. Call 321-327-4136 or find the restaurant on Facebook. Hours are noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, noon to 8 p.m. Thursday, noon-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Dine-in, takeout, catering and delivery are available.


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