Waffles inhabit the world of dreams. Like other dreamy things, they're sweet but not too sweet. They're light, fluffy, and warm, with spaces begging to be filled. Like other dreamy things — this might actually be a dreamworld requisite — waffles are treats that cannot be mistaken for non-treats. They are meals and desserts rolled into one. They live to cheer you up, and that's why Sfoof's Woofle Cafe is so much fun.
As the youngest of a diplomat's seven children, Hoda Cox grew up in Lebanon helping her mother prepare lavish Middle Eastern and North African feasts for distinguished guests. Cox, who was a caterer before opening Sfoof's last month, treasures the thank-you letters her mother received from First Lady Mamie Eisenhower after sending homemade desserts to the White House. "Mr. Eisenhower loved mamoul" — nut-stuffed, orange-flower-scented pastry domes — "and rice pudding. My mother sprinkled pistachios on top of her pudding," said Cox, "so it looked like a mosaic."
Art runs in the family. Cox's father was a painter; her daughter paints, too, and owns the Alphonse Berber Art Gallery next door to Sfoof's. Besides cooking and baking, Cox does Arabic calligraphy.
Sfoof's purveys dreamworld things. After a visit to Portland, Oregon's trendy Voodoo Doughnut — home of Cocoa Puffs- and Strawberry Quik-topped doughnuts and a bacon-maple bar — Cox came up with the idea of custom waffles. Customers choose, Cold Stone Creamery-style, from among 27 sweet and savory toppings and mix-ins that range from pecans to coffee beans to cheesecake to Fruity Pebbles to hummus to pesto to garlic to Armenian sujuk sausage. Every few days, Cox selects the best recent concoction and awards its deviser a prize. The day we visited, the winner was a woofle dubbed The Balanced Meal: It contained sujuk, almonds, and blueberries.
Sfoof's west wall is deep cherry-red, its east wall a you-are-there mural depicting ancient ruins, a sapphire sky, and Cox's childhood donkey, Elvis. Dreamlike, too, is a glass case stocked with fudge-dipped Oreos, chewy chipotle brownies, baklava, mamoul, pistachio-stuffed Turkish burma tel-katayif, and fudge-dipped, almond-dusted chocolate-batter waffles rolled around long sticks to be nibbled like Popsicles. These homemade sweets veer back and forth between Levantine classics and the kind of silliness that, in Berkeley, is actually subversive. Still dreamlike are Sfoof's dollhouse of an upper tier and its throbbing, piped-in Middle Eastern pop. It's as if everything here wants to poke you in the ribs and giggle, "Whee!"
Ordering off the menu maintains that not-quite-waking-life quality, as the subversive silliness extends to names. Face it: In a cafe called Sfoof's, waffles are not waffles but "woofles." Seared panini sandwiches are "sandwooches." Those chocolate woofles-on-a-stick are Fudge Puppies; their savory, woofle-swathed meat-and-cheese cousins are Pesto Pups, Bacon Pups, and Corn Pups. Along with the mix-ins, an array of predesigned stuffed, topped, baked-to-order woofles bear names meant to be spoken without squirming only if you are a child, or high: Witness the Cinny Bun (cinnamon and pecans baked into the batter, with maple-cream-cheese icing on top), the Hansel & Gretel (ginger, cinnamon, and allspice baked in, topped with ginger cream), the Chocolate Chimp (bananas, walnuts, and Maraschino-cherry cream). From this list, we ordered the Ruby Chili — Jack cheese and green onions baked in, chili on top — and the olive-feta-tomato-zaatar Arabian Nights. Both were unmitigated revelations.
As an uninflected starch slab whose basic recipe and cooking strategy convey neither aggressive flavors nor cultural signifiers, a waffle is consummately neutral. Recumbent and porous, it's the culinary version of the passive kid down the street, or white paint. Anything can be done to it. A waffle wanders the misty frontier between savory and sweet: part angel food cake, part sourdough baguette.
For all of her white woofles, savory and sweet alike, Cox uses the same sour-cream batter. (A gluten-free version is also available; for chocolate woofles, she uses a yogurt-based batter.) Laced with green onions that were local and organic — as are most ingredients in this cafe, whose owner refuses to use imported goods — this inch-tall baby proved a perfect foil for the hearty, meaty Ruby Chili, whose beans nestled into its hollows as if designed for the task. Baked-in kalamata olives and sea salt balanced the Arabian Nights' generous feta chunks and the sesame-thyme-basil richness of zaatar. Sfoof's most popular woofle, it's a cross between deep-dish pizza and something served at fairs far, far away. A virtual Silk Road, it embodies a low-tech, unforced, unpretentious fusion in which Near East grins, waves, and meets West.
To engage in such dishes, indeed just to accept that they exist, requires a slight suspension of belief or leap of faith, especially for those of us conditioned to associate waffles with only syrup and powdered sugar. (Obligingly, these two toppings come free for the asking with all woofles.) But like most adventures involving sour cream, it's worth the risk and fear.
A panini grill sears stripes across such sandwooches as the BLT Boalt and spinach-hummus-avocado-asiago Haas. These are bright, fresh, and tasty options, made-to-order for the waffle-avoidant — as are salads and not-so-common cafe beverages including cardamom-spiked Turkish coffee, chicory-spiked café au lait, and cane sugar-sweetened Mexican Coke. But all the while, the woofles call your name.
It is with the custom mix-ins that the dream really begins. We chose avocado-olive-Cheddar cheese and, on a chocolate woofle, almond-pineapple-coconut cream. One sang of cowboys, cookouts, California — the other was breakfast, birthday cake, and a piña colada. Every combination unleashes its own chain of associations, flashes, trips. The holy truth of waffles is that even plain they're glorious. Every add-on embellishes that glory. But as you learn in this land of chili beans and Maraschino-cherry cream, heaven is where waffles start.