pan africa market
i can’t walk by pan africa market without smelling it. an exotic aroma of spices and meat seeps out the perimeters of the door and windows, something that doesn’t often happen on seattle streets. now that the summer tables are no longer on the sidewalk, the restaurant is often quiet, with a couple of staff members lounging at a front table and texting.
this was the mid-afternoon scene the weekday afternoon we finally remembered to give the place a shot. spicy cooking perfumed the orange dining room as we chose one of the poorly wiped tables at which to enjoy lunch. pan africa resides on a highly desirable piece of pike place real estate and the true size of the place can only be realized once inside. a wall of windows exposes first avenue, while rear panes peak into an inside hallway of the market.
ethiopia dominates the menu, though items like piri piri and yassa make enough of an appearance to make it a “pan” restaurant. choosing among the curries, tangines and stews, all woven with coconut, saffron and yams, was going to be a challenge – until our server arrived. with him, he brought information of what was not available that afternoon; anything with groundnuts (peanuts, a quarter of the menu), the doro wat, any african beer on the menu (there was enough to get us excited), a number of wines, and more.
we settled on the beef tibs ($12) and a sampler plate (about the same) with the chenin blanc. we were brought a corona, a glass of shiraz and an apology. there was no chenin and these were on the house. ok, i could accept that.
the two other diners in the restaurant left shortly after we arrived. music would have done wonders to distract from the echoing emptiness, the occasional clang from the kitchen. but when the food arrived, the plates were large enough to conceal the dirty vinyl tablecloth. sure, it appeared instantaneously and couldn’t have been made to order, but what emanated from it was a concentrated version of the aroma that had originally brought us in.
both dishes came on injera, that ethiopian “bread” that looks like a flat sea sponge clinging to the ocean floor. the sourdough flavor somehow works just right with food that is heavily spiced or spicy. green and yellow lentils dotted the sampler plate, one deep and earthy, the other sweet and spicy. a generous portion of sautéed kale lay in the center, musty with a bit of crunch. despite my infrequent contact with these flavors, something about them was comforting and safe.
i’m only able to imagine africa. heat and sand, poverty and serengeti animals come to mind, but the spices that were the driving force behind these dishes made the country seem very real.
yet, much as i tried not to, i couldn’t refrain from looking about from my table and thinking of the small tweaks that could reinvigorate the restaurant, updated menus being first and foremost. i don’t mind flicking an old piece of onion off the tablecloth if the food is delicious and cheap. it just doesn’t look like many others feel that way.