If there's one thing I learned while traveling in Africa, it's that you can never predict the sublime. With little to guide you except your nose and your gut, eating "out" usually means perching on the side of the road in front of an unprepossessing stall and entrusting your appetite's fate to the dish of the day. Luckily it seems there's no end to the possibilities created from a handful of humble ingredients tomatoes, onions, legumes, and yams and the deft talents of a multitude of unsung culinary geniuses. Even luckier, in San Francisco, traveling gastronomically around an entire continent is as easy as hopping the bus to the next neighborhood, proving that even local travel can broaden one's horizons not to mention waistline.
Ever the sentimentalist, I have been known to wax nostalgic about Tajine's former gritty Jones Street location, which was so tiny it only had two or three tables and a bustling to-go trade among the city's taxi drivers. But because I consciously strive to embrace change (no, really!), I am able to appreciate their newer, bigger, and admittedly more expensive Polk Gulch location. Though its menu includes kebab plates, flaky bastilles (savory phyllo dough pastries), and an array of salads, it's the hearty, meaty, one-pot stews (tajines) that really get my tastebuds tingling.
1338 Polk, SF, (415) 440-1718, www.tajinerestaurant.com
BISSAP BAOBAB/LITTLE BAOBAB
From the national dish of Senegal (thiebou djen, a tilapia-based stew, served with red rice) to the regional specialties of yapou khar (a melt-in-your-mouth lamb dish from the city of Thiès) and yassa chicken from Casamance, Bissap Baobab dishes up pan-Senegalese cuisine with friendly flair. The not-to-be missed drinks, mixed with bissap (hibiscus), ginger, and tamarind juices inspire smooth (and otherwise) moves on the dance floor of Little Baobab once the tables have been pushed away and the rotating lineup of DJs comes out to play at 10 p.m.
2323 Mission, SF. (415) 826-9287
3388 19th St., SF. (415) 643-3558
The axis of the San Francisco Ethiopian restaurant "scene" for many years, Axum Café serves a fine, spicy kifto (Ethiopia's version of steak tartare), tender lamb tibsie, and an array of vegetarian options that would make even a diehard carnivore's mouth water. Tucked behind an unpretentious facade on Haight Street, what Axum might lack in slickster glamour it more than makes up for with its solid menu and neighborhood-friendly prices. Plus, you can mistake their injera for a tablecloth it's that big (though much tastier).
698 Haight, SF. (415) 252-7912, www.axumcafe.com
A TASTE OF AFRICA
If you've come down, as I've been known to, with a persistent craving for fufu and egusi soup, you'll be relieved to know that your hankering can be satisfied at A Taste of Africa without having to jump on the next plane to West Africa. This cheerful Cameroonian establishment also serves steamed corn koki (call ahead for availability) and a variety of savory vegetable dishes and meat stews. For an even more accurate taste of Africa, their food truck at the Ashby BART flea market definitely reminds me of the open air food stalls where I sampled so many of these dishes the first time around.
3015 Shattuck and Ashby BART station, Berk. (510) 981-1939
NEW ERITREA RESTAURANT
Though the cuisines are virtually identical, you don't want to confuse Eritrea for Ethiopia in polite company. Still, for those who love their Ethiopian restaurant experiences, the drill at New Eritrea Restaurant will be familiar.