One of the things that makes the Santa Fe food scene great is that we have so much to brag about: the intense concentration of mom-and-pop restaurants showcasing our unique native cuisine and a plethora of exciting high-end restaurants. Come to Santa Fe, we say, the food is amazing! And it is. But what we don’t talk about enough is the range of the restaurants we eat at every day—the quick Tuesday lunch, the early Thursday dinner. We may not have the breadth or depth of ethnic restaurants in Albuquerque or other, bigger cities, but what we do have is high-quality.
In many ways, Jambo Café represents the best of Santa Fe—creative, curious, colorful, diverse and fun. Hidden in a strip mall between Petco and Hobby Lobby, this African-Caribbean fusion restaurant’s cheery orange dining rooms are draped with twinkle lights. The tables are covered with right blue and orange fabric printed with giraffes and leopards. Photographs of coastal Kenya dot the walls. At lunch, they hum with the chatter of a perfect cross-section of the city from office workers still wearing their lanyards, seniors out for a ladies’ lunch or college students exploring. It’s just fun to be there.
Chef/owner Ahmed Obo is an adventurous eater with a global palate, and it shows in his menu. He grew up on Lamu, a small island off the coast of Kenya, in the Indian Ocean. Located just south of the equator, this part of Kenya’s coast is unmistakably African, but also a Muslim community that’s closer to Saudi Arabia than South Africa, closer to India than Morocco. It is the heart of Swahili culture, with a blended history of Africans who traded and lived—and ate—with Arabs, Portugese and Indians.
The flavors of coastal Kenya emerge in dishes like East African coconut lentil stew ($10.95) and Lamu coconut pili pili shrimp ($15.95). Jambo’s roti is a buttery Indian-influenced flatbread ($2.95) that improves everything you scoop up with it. I spent time in Lamu as a student in my 20s and just the thought of pili pili shrimp takes me back there. With access to beautiful fresh seafood and so many spices, the food on the coast is far more complex (and interesting) than central Kenyan food. It was the highlight of my time in Kenya and it’s the most special and delicious food on this menu.
But don’t miss out on some of Jambo Café’s traditional African mainstays. There are dishes I ate when I was living in a mud-and-dung hut in Kaimosi, a rural village on the western edge of the country, near Lake Victoria. Jambo’s simple polenta-like ugali ($2.95) tastes exactly like the one my host mother made for dinner every night. Try a side of sautéed spinach with garlic ($4.95). It reminds me of sukuma wiki, a simple dish present at every meal, made with things like collard greens, kale, beet tops or whatever else is handy.
Jambo also brings in the flavors of North Africa, with Moroccan spiced chicken kebabs ($13.95) and a tagine-style lamb stew with chickpeas, raisins and sweet potatoes over couscous ($13.95).
But Chef Obo also has a love affair with the Caribbean, so you’ll find plenty of options that will take you back to a vacation in Jamaica. Check out the jerk chicken, which is available in a salad ($10.95); as a platter with red beans, basmati rice and fried plantains ($13.95); or as a pita-wrapped sandwich ($9.95). The banana-leaf-wrapped island spiced mahi mahi ($16.95) spans the globe to combine wild rice, bok choy and a mango tamarind sauce. The island spice coconut peanut chicken stew over basmati coconut rice ($12.95) is positively addictive.
For a real trip around the menu I recommend the combination plate ($14.95): moist, rich curried chicken, sweetly spiced coconut lentils and an earthy goat stew. But feel free to wander over the whole menu—you can’t make a wrong turn.
Jambo Café at a Glance
11 am-9 pm Monday-Saturday
2010 Cerrillos Road, 473-1269
Best Bet: Combination plate
Don’t Miss: Roti (African flat bread)