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If anyone has earned a right to be churlish on this Sunday night at the South African Cafe, it’s my friend—we’ll call him Ziggy. In the 24-plus hours preceding our meal, Ziggy has traveled over two hours each way to Delaware to save from an impound lot’s crusher a car that neither starts nor has license plates. (“The car has a sentimental value,” he says.) Ziggy conned two friends to come along with the promise of swimming in a secluded lake. Turns out said lake no longer allows swimming. No biggie, Ziggy thinks, it’s raining anyway. Ziggy and company instead spend the day fighting with an asshole at the impound lot and trying to find a place to store the car, which they have a hell of a time jump-starting in the rain. Ziggy also loses his glasses.
The trio spends the night in a roadside motel, laughing off the day’s mishaps with enough beer for a party of six. On the ride back to D.C. the next morning, Ziggy notices that the car they’ve borrowed to make the trip is overheating—the fan belts are in knots. Few mechanics in southern Maryland work on Sundays, Ziggy soon discovers, and he spends several hours finding one—who doesn’t have the faintest idea how to fix the car. When Ziggy does finally find a mechanic with a clue, he only takes cash. Ziggy has credit cards. When he crash-lands back in D.C., Ziggy gives me a call from a pay phone—he has left his apartment keys in Delaware.
“Are we still on for dinner?” he asks.
Over dinner, I fear Ziggy might snap. After all, on past visits to the South African Cafe, I’ve contemplated making a scene, ripping into my waitress for knowing next to nothing about the food on the menu or making some wisecrack about wanting to eat sometime before the next election. But instead I hide my antagonism under a smile and ask for the check, hoping that it will arrive inside the hour. Ziggy is just as passive, finishing up my plate of limp and lifeless seafood stew. “It isn’t very good,” he says, “but I’ll eat anything.”
Despite friendly but often laughably inept service and food that is memorable mostly for the obvious lack of care taken in its preparation, the South African Cafe inexplicably has found a powerful ally. In her June 30 review, Phyllis Richman described at length the glacially paced service (“Dinner here demands patience”), the baskets of “flabby bread” that sometimes don’t even come, and the uniformly unremarkable cuisine. Still, Richman says that she’d return. So when I inform my companions before our meal that my previous visits to the Cafe have been maddening, I qualify my judgment: “I think I’ve just been ordering the wrong things.”
The Cafe is run by a group of South Africans who hope to make their native cuisine as popular locally as Ethiopian food. A noble mission, and given the Cafe’s execution, a ridiculous one as well.
The Cafe’s menu offers no insight into the nature of South African cuisine beyond the names of the items listed. I’m not the only one who can’t even guess what dishes like boerewors (sausage), pap (corn meal substance like polenta), or biltong (jerky) might involve; it’s not until our next-to-last visit that we can find an employee who can offer an explanation.
Using the Cafe as an indicator—which is both inadvisable and the only available option—South African cooking is a mixture of Malayan, Indian, African, and Dutch styles that will leave you wishing you were eating any one of those cuisines instead. The Cafe’s curries (lamb or chicken) are only slightly more flavorful than the rice that comes with them. The mixed grill of steak, lamb, and boerewors is a burned, chewy disaster. To try the Cafe’s sausage (think of a bratwurst sans bun), one of the few dishes I’d recommend, order the boerewors platter, which comes with a pile of pap covered in mild, salsalike gravy. The gamy flavor of the oxtail stew is unique, but it contains more bone than meat. The menu says the entree of malamogodu, pap, and morogo (I have no idea, and neither does my waitress) is only served on weekends. On the Saturday and Sunday nights that we try to order it, the kitchen is out of stock. What the menu says are “fried potatoes” in reality are french fries, which come soggy on the outside and cold on the inside. The fried whiting I order is rubbery, perhaps having been fried in oil that wasn’t hot enough.
“Is this good?” asks my charming waitress, who should be in another line of work. “Oh yeah. Fine,” I reply, lying through teeth that are riddled with fish bones.
The Cafe fares much better with its appetizers. We find the pickled fish, a mixture of cold fried fish, curry, and onions, delectable and peculiarly fascinating. The peri peri wings (a larger portion is served as an entree) are crisp and spicy, almost as hot as the broiled mushrooms that come on a skewer. Like Richman, I also like the Cafe’s coffee, which is bitter, rich, and strong enough to put the edge back on after consuming a liter of the excellent African beer. But either beverage would have to bring me to orgasm for me to consider returning anytime soon for another meal.
Walking home with Ziggy and company after a typically quaint but below-average meal at the South African Cafe, our waitress comes running up behind us, my wallet clutched in her hand. I thank her profusely for her trouble and her honesty, but I worry that she didn’t recognize how appreciative I was. But I soon forget about it. I’ve been nice enough.
South African Cafe, 1817 Columbia Rd. NW. (202) 332-0493.
Arthur’s Waffle House has been the victim of so much graffiti, neglect, and apparent rock throwing that I doubt the vandals find much fun in attacking the near-ruined building anymore. The place looks dead. While the view inside Arthur’s—basically just a kitchen and a cash register—isn’t much prettier than the one from the parking lot, it’s certainly more alive. One of the two people working all but demands that I order hash browns with my takeout breakfast. And I’m glad that she does—they contain almost as much onion as potato and are fried crispy brown. The House’s signature dish is in desperate need of some air; the waffles are dense and eggy, almost flat. Try the hearty breakfast sandwich instead.
Arthur’s Waffle House, 76 New York Ave. NE. No phone number available.—Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.