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Jambo Cafe blends flavors from Africa, India, elsewhere

Chef Ahmed Obo’s launch of Jambo Cafe in Santa Fe in 2009 started a remarkable 10-year run that included a cookbook, a feature on the Food Network and the opening of an Albuquerque outpost for his African-Caribbean cuisine in 2017.

Fried cassava strips at Jambo Cafe are an artful introduction to a root vegetable that’s a staple for millions of Africans. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

Along the way, the Kenyan-born Obo has become New Mexico’s unofficial ambassador for African food and culture. His Albuquerque spot, in a building formerly occupied by Weck’s on Juan Tabo NE, is decorated with masks, fabrics and bowls from his homeland. There’s an attached gift shop where you can peruse Obo’s signature line of chutneys.

The menu at Jambo, which means “hello” in Swahili, is based largely on Obo’s upbringing along Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast, a centuries-old crossroads for African, Indian, Arabic and European traders. It’s a chance to sample foods you’re unlikely to find elsewhere in the city.

A plate of fried cassava strips ($6.95), stacked like Lincoln Logs, is an artful introduction to a root vegetable that’s a staple for millions of Africans. The pale-yellow spears are chewier, denser and a bit sweeter than potatoes. They’re well-seasoned, but if you need more of a charge, the accompanying lime chile dipping sauce is spicy enough to take away your ability to speak for a moment. Temper the heat with a glass of mildly sweet-and-sour tamarind juice ($3.95), made from a fruit indigenous to tropical Africa.

The combination plate ($14.95) of chicken curry, goat stew and coconut lentils offers a rare opportunity in these parts to try goat meat, an important source of protein in developing countries. The goat is chopped into chunks and slow-cooked in broth with the meat still on the bone. The result is not at all greasy or gamey; it tastes like a milder-flavored lamb.

The combo plate comes with roti, a flatbread that originated in India before being widely adopted in Africa and the Caribbean. The buttery, unleavened bread, served wrapped in a cone, is flatter and crisper than naan, its Indian cousin. It evokes memories of peeling off and eating the flaky top of a homemade biscuit. If it’s not included with your dish, then order it à la carte for $3.95. You’ll likely consider it the new standard by which flatbread is measured.

Peanuts – known as groundnuts in Africa – take center stage in Jambo’s coconut peanut chicken stew ($12.95). Like cassava, peanuts made their way to Africa from South America centuries ago and have become a staple there. Crushed peanuts and chunks of mostly white meat chicken stud a silky coconut-curry sauce that’s not as hot or sweet as the peanut sauces of Asian restaurants. It’s addictive. There’s no need to scrape the bowl clean with your spoon; that’s what the roti is for.

Most of the offerings at Jambo are gluten-free, including a coconut black rice pudding dessert ($6.95) that, despite its name, is actually plum-colored. It’s creamy and not overly sweet, but if you had the cassava earlier in the meal it might put you into starch overload.

Prices at Jambo are reasonable, especially considering that you can easily get two meals out of each platter. Service was prompt and courteous, and the food came out quickly, which made it all the more surprising that the peanut chicken stew and the lentils were barely lukewarm and had to be sent back for more heating – the only off note in an otherwise wonderful meal.

The success of Ahmed Obo’s restaurants show that New Mexico diners are willing to try something different. We’re fortunate that his journey, like those of so many other immigrants, ended up here.

3 1/2 stars