Remember the Belgian waffle craze of the 1980s, when everyone and their mother started selling thicker waffles topped with four or five strawberries, a cup of chocolate chips, and enormous tufts of whipped cream? That is not a Belgian waffle. To your left is a Belgian waffle, from Arosa Cafe (1310 Madison St.) in First Hill.
Hans Riechsteiner, who is Swiss, opened the first Arosa Cafe in Madison Valley in 1992. He and his wife had traveled to Belgium and fallen in love with waffles there, so they bought waffle irons, tweaked a traditional recipe to suit their tastes, and started selling waffles in the cafe. Riechsteiner decided to retire in 2002 and sold the Madison Valley cafe, but says he lasted a few months before he got bored. So he opened the second location, ran it until 2007, retired again, got bored again; in March he bought the First Hill Arosa Cafe back from the woman who bought it from him (she still runs the Madison Valley store). Now he's behind the counter six days a week. "One day [off] I can handle, two's too much," he says.
In Belgium there are actually a number of regional styles of gaufre (waffle). The two best known are gaufres de Bruxelles and gaufres de Liège. The Brussels style -- which you can actually buy on the street there -- are light, square, sugar-dusted pastries. Trifles, really, easily bastardized by Denny's.
Hans's waffles resemble most closely the thick, oval Liège-style waffles I used to buy after school when I was an exchange student in a neighboring city -- the same dense, eggy batter; the same glossy, crackled spots where the pearl-sized nuggets of sugar that Hans must import from Belgium have erupted and caramelized against the iron. The cinnamon that Hans's wife adds to the dough seems an American twist to me, but this Belgian waffle fan site and the official Fraternity of the Liégois Waffle both say cinnamon is perfectly correct. Nostalgia is not always the best judge of authenticity.
The thing with Arosa's gaufres Liègoises, just like the ones I used to eat obsessively in Belgium, is that you have to eat them straight out of the iron. Hans makes batches of waffles all day, but even one hour is too late for a certain species of waffle snob, who finds that the sugar firms up and the dough sucks in weight from the surrounding air. If there are only a couple waffles on the rack, content yourself with the mean shots that Hans pulls -- he uses Fonte coffee -- or one of his Swiss-chocolate mochas, a neighborhood legend. If the waffles on display are legion, and the paper bag Hans hands you warms your fingers, there's no scone at Sugar or Starbucks muffin that can compare with this $2 morning snack.