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Home Is Where the Heart Is 

Ristorante Mereb

Wednesday, Jul 5 2000
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One night, I started feeling a bit homesick even though I was sitting ... at home. This was a conundrum, because when you're homesick, at home, there's not much you can do except ask yourself: How did this happen? Perhaps I was just melancholy -- a state of being that tends to pass even though it doesn't always feel like it will. Or perhaps it was Monday, which never treats me kindly. Or perhaps I'd been working too hard. Or perhaps it really was time to find something more meaningful than the so-called "city life" I pretend to live -- you know, the cocktails, the fine dining, the Caller ID display on my fancy-boy cordless telephone, as if I, Greg Hugunin, am so very special I need to know who's calling so I can decide in advance whether or not to lend him my precious ear.

Or perhaps it was all just restless speculation, which you do a lot of when you're feeling homesick at home. And then, somewhere along the way, I began reflecting on the meaning of things, and realized "home" is no longer the town where I grew up, but here, in San Francisco, in my apartment on Guerrero Street near the corner of 20th.

Owning a corner store on Guerrero Street must be a great thing, because people come here from all over the world to do it: Asia, the Middle East, and, in the case of the family that runs the Mereb Market at Guerrero and 19th, Eritrea, a former Italian colony on the Horn of Africa just across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. I don't know them all that well, but always felt welcome in their store, so I figured their newest venture -- Ristorante Mereb, at Guerrero and 18th -- might dispel the homesickness that overtook me so mysteriously in the comfort of my own home.

As it turned out, I was right, although actually leaving my apartment (in retrospect, the obvious cure for homesickness at home) may have contributed to my higher spirits. I never look a gift mood in the mouth, though, so let's dispense with the hand-wringing and talk about the dingy awning that, until a few months ago, graced the facade of the small vegetable market at 598 Guerrero. For years, that awning hid the gorgeous, floor-to-ceiling arched windows that now give Ristorante Mereb the open, sun-drenched feel of an outdoor cafe -- a simple wood counter, potted plants, high ceilings, soft music (perhaps Eritrean) wafting from the kitchen. In contrast to so many of the places that open in the Mission these days, Ristorante Mereb is a friendly, low-concept destination, perfect for families, casual dates, catching up with old friends, or, in my case, dropping by three times over the course of the week to enjoy the hospitality of my favorite Eritreans.

Of course, if the Merebs were foisting bad victuals on the eating public, the unforgiving nature of food criticism would demand that I skewer them mercilessly. Fortunately, this isn't the case. Dishes range from decent to marvelously complex, and, as an added bonus, are affordable. A lack of alcohol eliminates that costly indulgence, while six vegetarian dishes ($6.95 each) can be combined (one person, two choices, $8.95; two people, three choices, $17.95; on up to four people, five choices, $29.95) to create meals that shouldn't cost more than $15 per person, beverages, tax, and tip included.

Three meat dishes ($7.95-9.95) bring the total number of entrees to nine, of which I tried ... nine. Thus, I feel confident saying the food at Mereb can be spicy, but mildly so, a warm, pleasant glow balanced by the slight, sour tang of injera bread and the lightly vinegared salad that accompanies every meal.

If you've never had injera, picture a moist, spongy sourdough crepe. Every meal at Mereb begins with this wonderful bread, which is spread over a large, communal plate, then topped with stews or purées that are pinched into small pieces of a second, neatly folded injera. Though this sounds a bit messy, I never needed more than a few napkins to get through a meal, since the injera has a slight tackiness to it and wraps effortlessly around whatever you happen to be eating to form tidy, if temporary, little dumplings.

Among Mereb's vegetarian dishes, one of my favorites was shiro, a light purée of chickpeas and Eritrean spices that tasted somewhat like refried beans, but smoother, crisper, and without the heaviness of lard. Another favorite was kantisha -- finely chopped mushrooms, broccoli, garlic, onions, and Eritrean spices in a luxurious tomato sauce -- a deceptively simple stew that tasted sweet one moment, tangy the next, then spicy, then sweet, then tangy, and so on. Eritrean spices (so named on the menu; the blends vary) also starred in the fiery hamli -- spinach and peppers sautéed with tomatoes, onions, and garlic. If I were to take issue with anything here, I'd say the spinach was sautéed well past the point I like (it was verging into crisp), although if this is how they eat spinach in Asmara, I probably shouldn't complain.

I will complain a little about the ades, though, a mild purée of lentils, onions, tomatoes, garlic, and spices that made a nice contrast to the lusty meat dishes we'll get to in a minute, but seemed a bit bland on its own. Likewise, the alicha -- a mix of potatoes, carrots, and cabbage -- lacked the zing of some of the other dishes. But then, when you combine these two into ades alicha (lentils, onions, tomatoes, peppers, Eritrean spices, and curry), the complexity that marks the best of Mereb's dishes shines through. This miraculous purée tasted like lentils one minute, hummus the next, and then, incredibly, unsweetened peanut butter the next, and had a delicate, silky texture perfectly suited to a soft skin of injera.

Generally, Mereb's meat dishes exude more heat than their vegetarian counterparts, and, unless you're dining with more than two people, I recommend ordering only one -- more would be overkill though I enjoyed them all. The zigni ($7.95), lean beef simmered in red pepper sauce, was one of three table favorites at my table of one, and reminded me of a sweet, tomato-rich chili. Meanwhile, I can think of nothing with which to compare the tsebhi derho ($8.95), a blood-red, languidly spicy chicken stew that soaked almost -- but not all the way -- through the injera.

Or, if you really want to break the bank, indulge in the lamb kilwa ($9.95, $8.95 with chicken or beef) -- cubes of stir-fried lamb with onions, garlic, tomatoes, and green peppers. Like the kantisha and the ades alicha, the kilwa set the stage for an almost magical interlayering of flavors: mild heat, but also tanginess and the pungent savor of lamb, all of which caressed the palate simultaneously, yet somehow remained distinct.

Desserts (all $3) are American. I had a nice amaretto cheesecake on one visit, then skipped the chocolate cake during two others in favor of a more Eritrean delicacy: injera. After all, as mentioned above, you get two injera with every meal -- the one you pinch with, and the one that holds your entrees. In Eritrea, they also eat the second injera, since that lucky pancake has soaked up a wonderful array of sauces by the time dinner is over, and while I can't speak for my neighbors, or anyone else who drops by the 'hood, I, for one, feel this should definitely become a tradition on Guerrero Street as well.

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Greg Hugunin

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