Iron Man

Hans Riechsteiner is Seattle's waffle king.

I have seen crowds milling around outside Sweet Iron Waffles on Third Avenue downtown with looks on their faces like those I used to see on the junkies walking down Berlin Street in Rochester, New York—waiting for their chance to cop, but not wanting to look like they're waiting. They'd shuffle 20 steps in one direction, stop, turn and shuffle back, eyes always locked on the front door of whatever house or moldering apartment they were casing, waiting for The Man to start slinging. They'd look at their wrists as though, living on junk time, they hadn't pawned their watches ages ago. They'd move like they'd suddenly realized they were late for an important business meeting or dinner date with the Queen of Siam. It was the Brownian motion of need, random motion, described by desire, in constant, unstable orbit around Planet Junk. You can see the same thing happening around the door of Sweet Iron—a dozen heads on swivels, all stuck like magnets onto the front window and watching with sniper eyes as the waffle-slingers behind the counter work the big, imported Belgian presses, turning out Sweet Iron's stock-in-trade. They are waiting for their chance to push into the tiny dining room (three tables and almost no room for anything else), step up to the short service counter, and get their fix. I waited with them during lunch rush on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, standing with one foot on the curb and one in the gutter, watching and feeling that same needy charge of Berlin Street pulse through the crowd. Granted, the setting was a bit different: There were more strollers than shopping carts, and everyone was wearing shoes. But the vibe was the same. Sweet Iron had something that these people wanted very badly. They were just out there, focused, and waiting for the man. When a young woman walks in from the rain and chill of Madison Street on a Saturday afternoon, she doesn't even look at the small menu on the back wall at Arosa Café on First Hill. Instead, she has eyes only for the bakery case with the wire cooling racks. "Hi, Hans!" she calls out to the quick old man on the other side of the counter. Hans Riechsteiner looks up briefly, then smiles broadly. "How many today?" he asks, his delicate Swiss accent adding a little fringe to every word. Two waffles sit on the cooling rack—two perfect, square(ish), golden-brown, and speckled gaufres liègoises—but this woman knows the trick. "Four," she says, and Hans nods. This means he's going to have to make fresh waffles and serve them right out of the iron, hot and sticky and fragrant. He looks at me standing there, watching him work, getting in the way of the abbreviated flow of customers from the door to the counter and out again. "Sit," he says. "It will be five minutes, maybe more. I will make yours fresh as well." Arosa, like Sweet Iron, is small—a mostly nondescript space in a strip mall across the street from Swedish Hospital, half of it taken up by Hans' magical waffle and panini workshop. His menu is one of the shortest, tightest, and sweetest I have ever seen: Stumptown coffee; five sandwiches, all coming from his two panini presses; and "snack waffles," listed right at the bottom of the board—Liège-style, beautiful and perfect and left pretty much alone. No toppings. No strangeness. Most people who come here come for the waffles. Everyone who knows anything about waffles, it seems, comes here. And Hans seems to know almost all of them. I take a seat at one of the tables to wait. Behind the counter, Hans works like a clockwork automaton, moving from the cold table where the sandwiches are assembled to the panini press, from the coffee machine to pull espressos, bittersweet chocolate mochas, and some of the best hot chocolate I have ever tasted (nothing but steamed milk mixed, at regular intervals, with semisweet chips and swirled) to the heavy waffle irons and back again. A constant circle, stations of a highly specific cross. Customers come in, ask for waffles, get waffles, and go. Most of the time they call Hans by name and just speak a number: Three, Hans. Six. Only two today, Hans, thank you. Hans doubles orders so that the waffles in the bakery case are hot and waiting, but the best ones are lifted straight from the irons, sticky with caramelized sugar, in crinkly paper envelopes. A word or two about terms: "Belgian waffle," for the most part, encompasses two specific styles of waffle. The first is Brussels-style: square, light, puffy (thanks to the yeast-leavened batter), and usually served dusted with confectioners' sugar by a charmingly apple-cheeked waffle-pusher working a Brussels street corner like some character out of a foodie fairy tale. Gaufres de Bruxelles are what most American breakfast restaurants and frozen-waffle makers ripped off when they decided that a pancake simply wasn't classy enough for some people. A Brussels waffle is, after all, basically just a pancake that's spent a semester abroad: made with a similar batter and served similarly with knobs of butter and pools of syrup puddling in its deep, square grid. Diner waffles, thick or skinny, square or round, are based on the Brussels model. If not for the grits and hash browns, jukeboxes full of country-Western hits and shooter-drunk night creatures who descend after last call, a Waffle House might just as well be a Belgian restaurant. The next-best-known variety is Liège-style, named after the city in eastern Belgium where they were invented and popularized. Gaufres liègoises are a kind of Master's class in waffleology, made from brioche dough, not batter, and shaped in irregular squares or ovals. Less risen than their Brussels counterparts, they are also denser, chewier, and more rustic. Sugar, though, is the biggest difference. Sugar is what makes them so addictive that crowds of strangers will gather just to press against the glass and wait for their turn. Liège waffle dough, as it is kneaded, is studded with little balls of pearl sugar, which either lie hidden within the dough like tiny, crunchy, sweet gifts from the Belgian Waffle Gods or rise and caramelize when they contact the heat of the iron. This gives a Liège waffle a surface sweetness to balance its doughy interior, a stickiness that's the kind of thing gastronaut dreams are made of, and a gentle, delicate crunch like the finest, most fragile candy in the world. Both Sweet Iron and Arosa serve Liège-style waffles. Neither is doing anything terribly original. Pilgrims brought the secrets of waffle-making to the New World from Holland. Thomas Jefferson was the first to have waffle irons shipped to him from France, and threw frequent "waffle frolics"—wild parties centering around the making and eating of waffles (which just goes to show how desperate people were for any kind of entertainment before the invention of cable TV, miniskirts, and monster-truck rallies). During the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing, N.Y., Maurice Vermersch of Brussels sold waffles to thousands of fair-goers at a buck a pop—kick-starting the modern fascination with them. Funny thing about Vermersch, though: He originally called his waffles "Brussels waffles" because that's what they were. He switched to "Belgian waffles" when he realized that most Americans were so geographically retarded, they had no idea where Brussels was. I had my first Sweet Iron waffle that Wednesday afternoon and only ate about half before chucking the rest out. I'd ordered the plain—the simplest Liège waffle on the board at Sweet Iron—and my first two bites were so charry and bitter with burnt sugar that it could've been stuffed with Jefferson's hidden gold and I still would've tossed it. All those people waiting, I thought, and this was what they were getting? Fuck that. The trouble was either that the guys working the irons hadn't been keeping their grids clean, or were simply cooking the waffles too long—turning what ought to have been a delicate, sticky, golden, and crunchy crust of melted sugar into a crackling skin that tasted like licking a fireplace flue. Still, the crowds bothered me. Sweet Iron wasn't always busy, but it was often enough to make me wonder if I'd just been tragically screwed by a rare bad waffle. So I went back, this time early on a Tuesday. The place was quiet, but not empty. The waffle-slingers were working both irons, handling to-go and eat-in orders with remarkable speed. I asked for a plain waffle (again), another dipped in chocolate (because it isn't enough to essentially eat fried cake for breakfast, so better to dip it in candy, too), and a third from their custom list that includes waffles with bruléed bananas and caramel sauce, with ice cream, with bacon and syrup. I went for the brie-and-basil waffle—a weird sweet-meets-savory collision of French, Italian, and Belgian flavors. Once more, the plain waffle was burnt. Not as badly as the first one, but enough that the scorched sugar distracted me from what should've been the ethereal goodness of a perfect waffle. The chocolate waffle, on the other hand, wasn't burnt. Or maybe the bitterness of the semisweet chocolate covered that faint tinge of char and replaced it with the odd, contrapuntal kick of sugary-sweet waffle dough and caramelized sugar mixed with chocolate. I liked it because it didn't taste like eating scorched sugar, but still wasn't thrilled. The winner of the bunch was the one I thought least likely to charm me: the brie-and-basil. It was delicious, its sweetness not just balanced but complemented by the savory brie melting into its squares and a sprinkling of rough-chopped basil. Eating it gave me the same weird thrill as the first time I had a candied sage leaf: the experience of eating something which, according to all previous taste memories wired into my brain, ought to have been nasty, but instead shattered my preconceptions and became a food I craved specifically for its oddity and jagged friction of flavors. As for the crowds, maybe that simply has to do with the address: Of these competing waffle shops, Sweet Iron certainly has the more central location, the prettier room, the more abundant foot traffic. Junkies like it when you make things easy on them. Hans Riechsteiner opened his original Arosa Café in Madison Valley, right by the arboretum, in 1992. He and his wife had gone on a trip to Belgium, fallen hard for the waffles there, and, like Maurice Vermersch before them, brought the flavor home with them. They bought a couple of waffle irons, tinkered with a recipe (adding a little cinnamon to the traditional dough, mostly), and started selling completely un-messed-with waffles. Riechsteiner retired in 2002, sold the shop at 3121 E. Madison, quickly grew bored, and got back into the waffle game by opening a second Arosa location on First Hill at 1310 Madison. He ran that one for five years and retired again in 2007, selling it to the same woman he'd sold the still-operational original to. But he still couldn't stay away: In March of last year, he bought back the First Hill location and reinstalled himself behind the counter, where he works every day. Something about this kind of dedication lends Hans' waffles a little extra magic. His panini—in particular the Black Forest ham with Roma tomatoes and mozzarella—are the best I've had since coming to Seattle. As mentioned before, his hot chocolate is the greatest there is—so simple and assembled with such care. His waffles are similarly perfect—never burnt, never underdone, always golden, hot, and crackling with sugar, like biting through wafers of pure sweetness just microns thick. Fresh out of the irons, they are an expression of pure love and devotion to a single, rigid, and traditional art form that's been so bastardized over the years that tasting the real thing can be a revelation after years of Eggos. Hence, I could easily see myself shuffling on the sidewalk outside his shop, folding and refolding a couple of dollar bills and checking where my watch used to be (before I pawned it for waffle money), just waiting for Hans the Waffle King to pull a couple fresh ones out of the iron. jsheehan@seattleweekly.com PRICE CHECK

Sweet Iron Waffles Classic waffle, $2.99/Chocolate-dipped waffle, $3.49/Brie-and-basil waffle, $4.99 Arosa Cafe Black Forest ham panini, $6.99/Snack waffle, $2

 
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