The Rincon Center food court is a funny place. Inside, the Financial District's temple of dim sum, Yank Sing, looms large and gathers a crowd. Otherwise, there are dark or vacant lunch spots, and in the middle of it all drips a column of water from an installation in the ceiling. Complete with a fake marble frieze, it feels a bit like the ruins of an ancient SeaWorld.
Across the atrium, in a shadowy corner, sits Amawele's South African Kitchen. It's a quiet spot, but thankfully worth some fuss.
The menu is short and on display behind a cold case. Floppy fries spray out the sides of the frikadella roll — a South African rendition of the meatball sandwich. The fries, or "slap chips," are South Africa's vinegar-soaked invention and, as it turns out, the perfect condiment.
Next to the herbed meatballs, crowned with a spicy, creamy mayonnaise, the vinegar kick makes a better-than-ballpark meat sandwich.
Molded by waves of immigration from just about everywhere, South African cuisine has been riding the global merry-go-round for centuries. Here, however, the twin sisters ("amawele" being the Zulu/Ubantu word for "twins") who run the place hail from Durban, so Indian flavors hold most of the stage.
Take the bunny chow: curried chicken and potatoes poured into a hollowed-out quarter-loaf of white bread. "Bunny" is the evolved distortion of the word "Bania," an Indian caste of merchants for whom the dish was secretly made during apartheid. This is one of the many things I learned while signing a receipt at the counter.
The chow is, indeed, straight-up Indian. Curry leaves and all. When the sauce soaks into the bread, it makes a fantastically soft snack you can rip apart with your hands while your tongue is on fire. It's a bit cathartic, but messy if eaten on BART, as I did (they can't ticket me for writing this now, can they?). Just get there early if you want some.
The pies tend to be better than they look. Peaches and allspice make an odd cameo in the bobotie pie, giving an otherwise meaty filling a sweet and Christmas-like nudge. Somehow, this too is spicy.
And then there are the Cape Malay grains, a choice between quinoa and rice, chicken being an optional add-on. Cumin is in the forefront, while cauliflower and raisins round out the spicy edges.
The roti wraps are the most approachable, and the butterbean take was my favorite. Big, sweet beans lace a mushy, mildly spicy leguminous porridge, all wrapped up with crunchy, vinegar-soaked carrots in a big, soft blanket of roti.
Feet kicked up on the table in that deadened, shadowy corner of Rincon Center, I relished every bite and the weirdness of the restaurant's locale. And when one of the twins came over with a plastic cup of orange-infused water and a fork, staying to chat, I couldn't help basking in the lack of Chiarello-style schmooze.
In fact, I find the general affability of the place intoxicating. I love that the website's "History of South African Cuisine" is cut straight from Wikipedia, and that it promises "mouth-watering goodness." That there seems to be no rush, anytime, and the brand of effusiveness behind the counter feels sincere.
For African food, San Francisco is a one-taste town with a thing for Ethiopian. Sure, there are those few Moroccan cafés and that one, you know, Senegalese spot, but it's a paltry array next to the East Bay's monopoly on African foodstuffs. And it's a hell of a lot to miss out on. Happily, Amawele's is a good step. First, I just wish they'd relocate. Maybe to my backyard.
Amawele's South African Kitchen
Location: 101 Spear St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 536-5900, www.amawelessouthafricankitchen.com
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays
Price range: $7 to $13
Recommended dishes: Cape Malay quinoa ($8.50), bunny chow ($8.50), butterbean roti wrap ($7), frikadella roll ($8)
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted