As the fireworks display known as Indian cuisine finds a measure of American celebrity, some of us are left to wonder about an equally spice-rich tradition that remains slightly obscure even in a sophisticated international city like San Francisco. The foods I’m referring to are from East Africa from Ethiopia and its northern neighbor (and once unwilling province), Eritrea and maybe the African connection gives us our first clue about their relative obscurity. In my lifetime, most of the food news from Africa has been bad news, beginning with a terrible famine in the West African land of Biafra in the late 1960s to, more recently, a similar crisis in the Sudanese region of Darfur.
Starvation is a chronic threat in modern Africa, and it seems tasteless, somehow, to go out and eat Ethiopian food at a well-provisioned restaurant in a rich city while actual Ethiopians are starving. What would they think of us? What should we think of ourselves? Yet the food is marvelous, and it doesn’t seem quite right to ignore it and the people who are trying to make a living by offering it in their restaurants as an awkward gesture of sympathy or solidarity. Our uneasy compromise seems to be to have a certain number of Ethiopian restaurants and to enjoy them, as long as they don’t become too high-profile or glossy. When the first bistro opens with a menu of "modern Ethiopian cuisine," we will know the wind is shifting.
Meantime, there are such lovably unaffected places as Club Waziema, which has been dishing up platters of Ethiopian food on Divisadero Street in the Western Addition for nearly 10 years. When they say "club," they’re not kidding; the deep space has a sort of sports-bar aura in its streetside quarter but acquires a pool-hall feel (complete with pool table) in its raised rear room. In between, opening off the narrows that connects front and rear, is a cozy nook for two that might be a made-over closet but feels like a spot you’d be delighted to find on a 19th-century railcar.
You’d probably be delighted, too not to mention flabbergasted to find food like Waziema’s on any 19th-century railcar. Restaurants cooking spice-charged food are like huge aromatherapy candles, bathing their environs with bewitching scents, and Waziema is no exception. Even out on the street, you can smell it before you see it, and once you’re through the door, you’re in the zone.
The menu describes dish after dish as "spicy," without saying what those spices are. (Even the Ethiopian lager Harar is spicy.) The best-known of Ethiopian flavoring agents is a paste known as berbere, which often is made from many of the same spices cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, coriander, turmeric, fenugreek that turn up in the Indian garam masala (known to us as curry powder), along with the softening, sweetening presences of allspice and nutmeg. Then there is mitmita, a cayenne pepper-like powder ground from dried red African chili peppers.
If I was taking a quiz, I would guess that Waziema’s lamb stew ($11.50) boneless chunks of meat simmered with garlic, ginger, and spices had some mitmita in it, mostly because of the sauce’s red clay color and a distinctive chili, almost Tex-Mex flavor. The menu described the lamb as "mild," but we thought we detected some heat. The beef stew ($10) was similar, with cubes of meat in a rich sauce, except the sauce lacked its sibling’s sunrise glow. It looked more like beef burgundy, and in fact berbere paste can include red wine. If cubed meat isn’t your thing, you might go for the spicy chicken ($10.50), which features a pair of legs braised on the bone in a golden sauce. (Our server asked us if we wanted the chicken "mild, medium, or hot," with the assurance that "hot isn’t that hot." And it wasn’t. It was just right, really.)
Can’t decide? Get the combo ($12.50), which provides half-portions of two of the meat dishes. On the vegetable side of the menu, the combo will bring you sizable samplings of all the meatless dishes. These include spicy lentils (quite dal-like), garlicky collard greens, a vegetable stew (of carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, and cabbage in garlic sauce), and mushroom chunks in a thick brown sauce like the beef’s. Everything is presented family-style on a large platter lined with a disk of injera, the spongy Ethiopian flatbread made from teff flour. (Teff is an Ethiopian grain with a pleasantly sour taste.) More injera is provided on the side for tearing into pieces and scooping up bites of the various stews.
One lesson to be drawn here is that Ethiopian cooking, like Indian cooking, tends to be vegetarian-friendly. Even carnivores could graze happily for a long while on a platter of the vegetable dishes. (One possible issue for hard-edged vegans: much of Ethiopian cooking is typically done in clarified butter.) Another lesson is that Waziema gives unusually good, I might even say exceptional, value. Prices are moderate, servings are not small, and the sense of bounty is enhanced by the festive heaping of everything onto a colorful platter that lands in the middle of the table like an edible flying saucer.
Divisadero between Castro and Geary remains one of the city’s most vital and interesting restaurant rows. Although there has been some cautious infiltration by upscalers, the neighborhood still has a few days’ growth of beard, and it still has a good supply of places like Club Waziema, where those with a few days’ growth of beard are among friends and the matter of hunger is both an occasion for reflection and celebration.
Dinner: Mon.Sat., 610 p.m.
543 Divisadero, SF
Partly wheelchair accessible