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Jambo Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Jambo Cafe in Santa Fe

Jambo Cafe in Santa Fe

Growing up in the 60s–the dark ages before the Internet was even a glimmer in Al Gore’s eyes and google, then spelled “googol” represented an very large number (currently being approached by America’s budget deficit)–even precocious children like me derived most of our knowledge of Africa from National Geographic magazines and Tarzan movies. We thought Africa was one large monolithic country comprised solely of stark, expansive deserts or lush, mysterious jungles. Africa’s indigenous people, we believed, had to compete for food with lions, tigers and hyenas, oh my. Though Africa was called “the Dark Continent,” it was truly our knowledge which was in the dark, obfuscated by stereotypes and misconceptions.

A rare sight--For once Jambo Cafe isn't pack (a momentary event; within minutes, the restaurant would fill up--even though it was well after 2PM)

A rare sight–For once Jambo Cafe isn’t pack (a momentary event; within minutes, the restaurant would fill up–even though it was well after 2PM)

The 1966 debut of Star Trek helped eliminate some of those stereotypes with the introduction of communications officer Lieutenant Uhura, a stunning black woman from the United States of Africa who spoke Swahili.  By the time Disney’s The Jungle Book premiered in 1967, I had learned enough about Africa to know that save for in zoos, you couldn’t find a tiger in the entire continent.  In the intervening years since the naivete of my youth, I’ve also learned that Africa is comprised of 53 very distinct and autonomous nations and even more unique cultures.  While jungles and desserts are indeed  a significant part of the African landscape, so too are mountains that hug the clouds and grassy flatlands called savannas.

My friend Bruce "Sr Plata" Silver and Jambo Owner-Chef

My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver and Jambo Owner-Chef Ahmed Obo

The vast diversity of Africa extends to its cuisine, which–similar to American cuisines–takes on regional personalities reflective of an area’s culture, history and ingredients. Swahili cuisine, for example, is a lusty and vibrant confluence of local ingredients and spices ameliorated by the ideas and ingredients brought over by foreign settlers.  One of the epicenters of Swahili cuisine is Lamu, a small Equatorial island off the coast of Kenya.  Lamu is where chef Ahmed Obo began the unique journey that would ultimately lead him to Santa Fe where he would launch one of the most talked about restaurants in a city in which the conversation usually turns to great restaurants.

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives Star Guy Fieri visited Jambo in September, 2013

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives Star Guy Fieri visited Jambo in September, 2013

Since its launch in August, 2009, perhaps no restaurant in Santa Fe has garnered as much acclaim as Jambo Cafe. In its inaugural year, Jambo Cafe earned “Best of Santa Fe” honors for “Best New Restaurant” and “Best Ethnic Restaurant” from the Santa Fe Reporter. Within six months of launching, Jambo’s intoxicating elixirs earned “Best Savory Soup” and “Best Soup” overall in Santa Fe’s Souper Bowl which benefits The Food Depot, Northern New Mexico’s food bank. One year later, Jambo repeated its “Best Soup” win and added “Best Vegetarian Soup.” The traveling trophy emblematic of Jambo’s super soup has a prominent place by the front window while framed certificates for each win festoon the walls

Cinnamon-Dusted Plantains served with pineapple curry dipping sauce.

“Jambo” translates from Swahili to a shortened, more informal, “touristy” version of “hello.” All social interactions in Swahili are usually prefaced by a greeting, but not in the perfunctory manner of American greetings. Swahili greetings tend to be more respectful and formal than American greetings. It’s therefore quite surprising to be greeted in such an effusive and informal manner when you walk into Jambo Cafe. It’s a genuine friendliness, imparting a warmth that’s increasingly rare in stodgy Santa Fe. The friendliness extends from adjoining tables, some populated by retro-clad hipsters who seem to have found the home at Jambo they couldn’t find in one of the stuffy, high-end, high-brow Santa Fe restaurants.  Conversations across neighboring tables make for a fun and interesting vibe.

Coconut Peanut Chicken Kebabs with Curry Coleslaw

The ochre colored walls are adorned with framed photographs and paintings of Africa: the shaggy maned lion in all its glory, the elegant and elongated giraffe, elephants frolicking in the Serengeti Plain, native youth at play and more. Batiks hug the ceiling tiles. The restaurant, a tenant of a nondescript strip mall, is long and narrow with tables in personal space proximity to one another.  Even though the restaurant expanded in 2012 and doubled its seating capacity, queues of diners waiting to be seated can exceed an hour over dinner.   The personal space proximity makes it easier to get to know your neighbors, some of whom have an intimate knowledge of the menu and can tell you what’s good and what’s…well, everything is good and that’s a starting point.

    Winner of the 2011 Souper Bowl in Santa Fe: curried black bean, sweet potato soup

Winner of the 2011 Souper Bowl in Santa Fe: curried black bean, sweet potato soup

While many of us would willingly admit a complete ignorance of African food, the menu’s African and Caribbean dishes might inspire a little deja vu and it’s not necessarily because you may have read or heard about just how great the food is. The starters–stuffed phyllo, hummus plate, coconut shrimp, jerk chicken wings and cinnamon-dusted plantains–(or variations thereof) appear on menus at other restaurants. The familiarity extends onto the salads, entrees and desserts, none of which sound especially exotic or altogether strange or different.

Ginger Peanut Butternut Squash Soup

The difference between Jambo’s cuisine and that of other restaurants is in Jambo’s inspired melding of flavor and ingredient combinations–combinations which dance on your taste buds with seasonings and spices that eke out every bit of addictive deliciousness possible while perfuming the air with intoxicating aromas. There are few dishes and even fewer restaurants which truly surprise me with “knock your socks off” flavors. Jambo is among the few.

Butternut Squash-Fennel Soup

Your adventure in truly sensual dining starts with beverage selection while perusing the menu. Forget the usual suspects (even if they do include Hansen’s Soda, the ubiquitous and delicious Santa Fe favorite) and indulge in something out of the ordinary–something extraordinary. Try the mango ginger lemonade, a triumvirate of flavors that purse your lips with an invigorating tanginess. You’ll be smacking your lips in grateful appreciation, especially on sweltering summer days. Maybe even better is the Jamaican hibiscus iced tea with its elements of earthy fruitiness and noticeable lack of the acerbic aftertaste often found on tea.

Island Spice Coconut Peanut Chicken Stew: with basmati coconut rice.

Appetizers & Soups

19 March 2011: Some diners consider appetizers foreplay for the taste buds, a preamble to the main course and a fairly reliable barometer of the restaurant’s culinary prowess. Great appetizers will whet your appetite for more. Phenomenal appetizers will leave you happy if your meal consisted of nothing more. That’s the way we felt about the cinnamon-dusted plantains served with a pineapple curry dipping sauce. The texture of the plantains is perfect–more firm than bananas and not as firm as potatoes, perhaps resultant from being sauteed. The cinnamon is akin to a blessing, sweet and gentle, while the pineapple curry dipping sauce is a perfect foil, a contrast that draws out other qualities in the plantains. The sauce is terrific, a melding of African curry and succulent, sweet pineapples. African curry is rich and complex, wholly different from Thai or Indian curries.

Jerk Chicken Wings

Jerk Chicken Wings

07 January 2012: One of Jambo’s most interesting appetizers naturally brings comparisons to a similar appetizer, one found a continent away in Southeast Asia.  When we saw coconut peanut chicken kebabs on the starter menu, it brought to mind satay, the popular Thai and Malaysian starter.  Similar to satay, Jambo’s coconut peanut chicken kebabs feature skewered strips of chicken served with a peanut sauce.  While satay is marinated in Thai curry with the peanut sauce used in a complementary fashion, Jambo’s kebabs are covered in the coconut-peanut sauce, a savory sauce that tastes like a grown-up version of the sometimes cloying Thai peanut sauce.  Served with the kebabs is a curry coleslaw, a terrific variation on conventional coleslaw.  It’s an idea whose time has come. 

Coconut Shrimp with Lime-Mango Sauce

03 January 2013Jerk wings tend to fall into two camps: wings slathered with a Scotch Bonnet pepper based sauce so piquant it’s been used in Guantanamo as an instrument of “interrogation” and wings so insipid, they cause somnolence.  At Jambo, the Jerk Chicken Wings are meaty wings infused with a beguiling Caribbean inspired spice mix in perfect proportion to a mild smokiness.   Jambo’s chicken wings will tease your taste buds with piquancy and they’ll please your palate with flavor. 

25 April 2015: Because fried shrimp harkens me back to the rare “fine-dining” experiences at The Sizzler during my unenlightened childhood, my preference has always been for boiled shrimp. My eyes typically grouse over any menu featuring fried shrimp, but to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen’s classic debate zinger “Jambo is no Sizzler.” You’ve got to believe Chef Ahmed knows a thing or two about frying shrimp. Besides, wild tiger shrimp are a mild (less briny and “fishy) shrimp that pairs well with a variety of sauces. Jambo butterflies the jumbo shrimp, encrusts it in a crispy coconut batter and fries it to a golden sheen. The shrimp is paired with a lime-mango sauce which imparts a tanginess that complements the sweetness of the batter and the savory qualities of the shrimp. This is shrimp the way my eight year-old self wishes he’d had. 

Combination Plate: Chicken curry, goat stew and coconut lentils with rice and roti.

If the notion of a fennel butternut squash soup makes you deliriously weepy, Jambo has a version you’ve got to try. Typically the aromatic, licorice-like flavor of fennel is a nice counterbalance to the sweetness of butternut squash, but the fennel is just one of so many exotic touches on this soup that it’s a challenge to discern its presence. Seriously, you could probably have substituted dandelion for fennel and you wouldn’t be able to discern the dandelion. That’s how well all the spices and seasonings meld together. This soup is truly an amalgam of individual flavors coalescing into a singular, more delicious whole. It’s got the typical comforting soup qualities of creaminess and deliciousness, but it’s so wonderfully well-blended that the fennel seemed rather left out, not that we cared. Okay, now that I’ve beaten up that point, once we got past trying to discern the fennel, we luxuriated in just how great yet another Jambo soup is.

19 March 2011: The soup of the day during our inaugural visit was the best of the best, Jambo’s 2011 Souper Bowl award winning curried black bean and sweet potato soup. In several years of serving as a judge at Albuquerque’s Souper Bowl competition, only a handful of soups even approach the complexity and depth of flavors of this intoxicating elixir. This is a soul-warming soup which will lift your spirits and re-kindle your love of soup. The curry provides an exquisitely spicy touch that marries oh so well with the sweet potatoes. The soup is served hot, the way soup should always be served.

    Grilled Marinated Beef Kabobs: Served with pomegranate red onion sauce over saffron new potatoes and green beans.

One Skewer of Grilled Marinated Beef Kabobs and One Skewer of Coconut-Peanut Chicken Kebabs: Served with pomegranate red onion sauce over saffron new potatoes and green beans.

7 January 2012: If there’s one thing our visits to Jambo have taught us is that soup is a must with every meal.  Even if its ninety-five degrees outdoors, these magical elixirs are so good they’d draw a smile from the Soup Nazi of Seinfeld fame.  The soup of the day during our second visit was a ginger peanut butternut squash soup, the very best I’ve ever had.  Too many chefs seem to accentuate or even heighten the sweetness of butternut squash, sometimes resulting in a dessert-sweet soup.  At Jambo, the natural sweetness of the butternut squash is melded with the invigorating freshness of ginger and the savoriness of peanuts to create a sweet-savory-piquant soup you’ll want a vat of.  The soup is served with wedges of pita.  You’ll also find pita within the soup where it’s toasted and cut into delightful bite-size pieces. 

7 January 2012: Sometimes the differences between a soup and a stew are barely discernible.  By definition, a soup is any combination of meat, fruit, vegetables and/or fish cooked in liquid while a stew is a dish containing meat, vegetables and a thick soup-like broth made from a combination of the stewing liquid and the natural juices of the food being served.  Jambo’s Island Spice Coconut Peanut Chicken Stew is most assuredly a stew though it has soup-like qualities and might remind you of Jambo’s wondrous soups.  It’s a thick amalgam of perfectly spiced and sinfully rich ingredients as comforting and delicious as any soup or stew you’ll ever have.  It’s served with perfectly prepared basmati rice.

Grilled jerk organic chicken

Entrees

19 March 2011: To maximize your adventure in flavor, you’ll want Jambo’s combination plate which is brimming with chicken curry, goat stew and coconut lentils with rice and roti. The curry, stew and lentils are trisected by coconut rice in the shape of the letter Y. The chicken curry and goat stew are studies in the efficacy of rich, complex sauces. The goat stew is an amalgam of potatoes and carrots in a sauce of equal pronouncements of sweet and piquant. The goat meat itself is plentiful, including tiny bones. The chicken curry, which includes sauteed spinach, is not nearly as intense as the curry, but maybe even more flavorful. Coconut lentils, an East African staple, will make a believer of any lentil loathers out there. The roti, a warm bread vaguely reminiscent of Indian naan, is perfectly made. We used it in much the way New Mexicans use tortillas to scoop up chile and beans. Interestingly, while the menu calls roti “African flat bread,” it’s also a staple of Malaysian restaurants.

19 March 2011: The accommodating staff has a “customer is always right” latitude in allowing substitutions.  For example, my Kim wanted the grilled jerk organic chicken entree, but wanted the sides which come with the grilled marinated beef kabobs.  The sides would be a pomegranate red onion sauce over a green bean and mixed green salad with saffron new potatoes.  The pomegranate and red onion sauce is phenomenal, a melding of sweet, tart fruitiness and caramelized pickled red onions.  It’s one of those rare salad dressings you might be tempted to lick off the plate to make sure you don’t miss any.  The mixed greens are at the height of freshness.  The jerk chicken is redolent with a sweet-spicy smokiness reflective of the assertive spiciness of jerk seasoning.  A light crust seals in moistness and flavor.  This is one of the very best jerk chicken plates I’ve ever had! 

Tuna

Sesame Encrusted Albacore Tuna

7 January 2012: The grilled marinated beef kabobs served with the aforementioned pomegranate red onion sauce over saffron new potatoes and green beans are par excellence, as good (albeit quite different) as kebabs you’ll find at most Middle Eastern restaurants.  Two skewers of slightly bigger than bite-sized beef prepared at about medium well are served crisscrossed style over the other items on a beautifully appointed plate.  The beef is tender and delicious and if you’re concerned about the sweet pomegranate sauce having a sweet and sour effect on the beef, you need not be.  The pomegranate red onion sauce actually complements the beef very well.  In fact, you might find yourself wondering how that sauce would go with your favorite steak. 

3 January 2014: Jambo is no slouch when it comes to seafood.  The special of the day during a January, 2014 visit was a sesame encrusted albacore tuna over crab basmati rice and julienned vegetables topped with a spicy coconut peanut sauce.  The creamy white flesh of albacore, a true “white meat tuna” is less oily than other types of tuna and has a delicate flakiness.  It also has a slightly more “fishy” flavor than some tunas.  Perhaps that’s why the spicy coconut-peanut sauce works so well.  It doesn’t mask the natural flavors of the tuna; it accentuates them much in the way mint jelly complements lamb chops. The crab basmati rice is perfectly prepared with a delightful texture and ability to sop up the coconut-peanut sauce.

Mango cobbler a la mode

It’s become almost passé for restaurant menu items to read like an impossibly good novel only for the highlight of those items to actually be reading the mouth-watering descriptions. Not so at Jambo. When the special-of-the-day is described as “papaya marinated moonfish served over butternut squash brown rice, sautéed garlic asparagus and topped with a smoked paprika coconut spice,” the eating is better than the reading. Moonfish, a widely underutilized and carefully harvested Hawaiian fish is–despite an oily flesh–very rich and flavorful. Chefs love its versatility, but none we’ve had is prepared in quite the way Jambo prepares it. You may want to bathe in the smoked paprika coconut sauce which blends seemingly disparate flavor profiles into a harmonious composite.

Jambo will make diners of all persuasions very happy.  The menu is replete with vegetarian friendly dishes.  Chef Obo is a proponent of the locavore movement, striving to procure locally grown organic food as much as possible.  The cafe’s lamb is raised in Abiquiu, the organic feta cheese comes from Tucumcari and other ingredients such as organic mixed greens and free-range chicken are from local sources.

Key Lime Pie with Chocolate-Almond Crust and Coconut-Cardamom Flan

Desserts

19 March 2011: Apple, peach and blackberry cobblers are a staple of the deep South where cobbler is often served with barbecue, but rarely will you see mango cobbler a la mode with barbecue (or anything else).  If Jambo’s rendition is any indication, mango should be a fixture on cobbler recipes.  Its sweet juiciness is perfect atop and beneath a crumbly crust topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream. In season, mangoes are even more juicy and sweet so this is a dessert that will be even better in the summer. 

3 January 2013: Save for the baklava, the desserts at Jambo are made on the premises.  It’s no surprise that desserts are very much worthy of the appetizers, soups and entrees.  The desserts start off as familiar, but are given unique touches that make them even better.  Take for example the restaurant’s flan.  Flan, a baked custard often served with a caramel (or even better, cajeta) sauce is almost de rigueur in New Mexican restaurants.  At Jambo, the flan is imbued with cardamom, a fragrant and delicious spice.  Then there’s the Jamaican rum pecan pie with just enough Jamaican rum to be noticeable.

Jambo24

Top: Cardamom Flan
Bottom: Jamaican Rum Pecan Pie

The popularity of Jambo means during peak times, you may have to wait to be seated, but the deliciousness of the food makes the wait worth it. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to call this tiny cafe one of the very best restaurants in Santa Fe, if not New Mexico.

JAMBO CAFE
2010 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 473-1269
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 25 April 2015
1st VISIT: 19 March 2011
# of VISITS: 4
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cinnamon-Dusted Plantains, Curried Black Bean and Sweet Potato Soup, Grilled Organic Jerk Chicken, Combination Plate (Chicken curry, goat stew and coconut lentils with rice and roti) Mango Cobbler a la mode, Cardamom Flan, Jamaican Rum Pecan Pie, Sesame Encrusted Albacore Tuna, Butternut Squash-Fennel Soup, Coconut Shrimp, Moonfish

Jambo Cafe on Urbanspoon

Kasbah Mediterranean – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Marrakech  Kasbah for the best in Moroccan and Greek cuisine

Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
Had to get away to see what we could find
Hope the days that lie ahead
Bring us back to where they’ve led
Listen up to what’s been said to you

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakech Express
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakech Express
All on board that train
– Crosby, Stills & Nash

For decades, Hollywood has portrayed the ancient Moroccan city of Marrakech as a venue in which mystery and intrigue can be found along every narrow street and behind every sharp turn, a place of fantasy where fire-eaters, sword-swallowers and snake charmers perform–a city with a dizzying array of food stalls, richly adorned palaces and alleyways crowded traditional shops in which intricately woven tapestries and brass works dazzle the eyes.

Alfred Hitchcock certainly exploited those characteristics in his suspenseful 1956 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much where middle class Americans played by Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day vacationing in Marrakech find themselves embroiled in a nefarious plot to assassinate an ambassador after their son is kidnapped.  The movie has me on the edge of my seat every time I watch it, as much for the suspense which builds to a surprising climax as for the unique way in which the 1956 Best Song Oscar Que Sera Sera plays a role in the plot’s resolution.

The colorful interior at The Kasbah

Although they couldn’t catch the Marrakech Express of Crosby, Stills & Nash fame, from 1998 through the millennium year, Duke City diners managed to make their way to Marrakech in droves–not to the Moroccan desert, but to Central Avenue where Tunisian owner and chef Ridha Bouajila created an alluring menu of North African and Greek cuisine favorites at his fabulous restaurant, appropriately named Marrakech.  To aficionados of the uniquely seasoned, vibrant melding of heretofore unavailable flavor combinations, the closure of this inimitable restaurant warranted a flag flying at half mast.

Bouajila returned to the Albuquerque dining scene in 2004 when he launched the Mediterranean Cafe–essentially Marrakech reborn.  The Mediterranean Cafe on San Mateo (at the site which also housed Quesada’s) operated under Boajila for two years before he sold it to his business partner.  Within a year, the restaurant folded and once again savvy Albuquerque diners were left in mourning for the Moroccan cuisine with which they had fallen in love.

Delicious Dolmas: surprisingly flavorful though not homemade

Delicious Dolmas: surprisingly flavorful though not homemade

On December 11th, 2009, the discerning Duke City diners captivated by Moroccan cuisine had a reason to celebrate again when Bouajila launched his second instantiation of Marrakech.  It was situated in the shopping center which for years was the site of Robb’s Ribbs.  Ensconced in the corner shop between an old-time barber shop and an Asian restaurant, its tiny storefront belied the nearly 3,000 square foot space, by far the largest restaurant Bouajila has operated.  

In 2011, Marrakech shuttered its doors once again but reopened in 2012 with a new name.  Now christened  Kasbah Mediterranean, by any other name the captivating aromas emanate from the kitchen and waft over you like a delicious, enveloping breeze.  Those aromas perfume the air with incomparably rich dishes melding sweet and savory on the same plate–dishes which incorporate dried fruit such as dried plums and apricots; aromatic spices like cinnamon, paprika and dried ginger; and ingredients which make seasoned chefs swoon such as preserved lemon, rose water and saffron.  The ingredient and flavor combinations are inspired and bold, the results memorable.

Hummus with Pita

Kasbah Mediterranean is situated on eastern fringes of Nob Hill in the edifice which previously housed Guicho’s Authentic Mexican Food Restaurant.  Gone are the colorful murals depicting beautiful maidens and Aztec warriors.  In their place are intricately woven tapestries and their multi-ihued mosaic patterns; sheer, whisper thin silken fabric coverings and bright colored walls on which artful accouterments are hung. The tasteful color array is warm and inviting.

Tables are in personal space proximity so you can’t help but gawk in admiration as large plates of stunning food arrangements are delivered to other patrons. No matter what the restaurant has been named over the years, our experience has always been a pleasant interaction with a friendly and accommodating wait staff which delights in their guests’ enjoyment of  the food.  They beam radiantly with pride with each (and there were many) compliment we paid and when they can’t answer a question, they stepped into the kitchen and retrieve an answer from the chef. That’s a sign of professionalism.

Baba Ganouch and pita

Baba Ganouch and pita

Just as he did at his previous Albuquerque restaurant stops, Bouajila also made it a point to come out of the kitchen to welcome diners and ensure a pleasant dining experience.  Now, pleasant is probably the most understated adjective any diner will use after a meal at Kasbah Mediterranean. Be daring in your ordering (translation: go for the Moroccan entrees, not the familiar Greek standards) and you’re assured a dining experience in which your taste buds are titillated, your imagination is unencumbered and your soul is satisfied.

That’s not to say the Greek items aren’t fabulous.  They’re just so familiar–you can have gyros, dolmas, hummus, Greek salads and Spanakopita at several Greek restaurants throughout the city.  Do what Marco Polo would have done and take a different culinary route through a Moroccan menu that might seem strange and different, but which offers an adventure you won’t soon forget.

King's Bastilla

King’s Bastilla, a surprisingly delicious entree for lunch, dinner….or dessert?

Aside from the aforementioned Greek dolmas, hummus and Spanakopita, the appetizer section of the menu includes a soup du jour, baba ganouch (Arabic), falafel (Arabic) and brika (Tunisian).  Brika, a Tunisian turnover, is an excellent start to your dining adventure, a delicate pastry filled with seasoned potato mousse, fresh parsley, herbs and egg then fried to perfection. It’s a starter with which we were quite familiar from visits to the original Marrakech and the Mediterranean Cafe and one we’ll have during future visits.

23 January 2010: In discussing the appetizers with a buoyant server, she raved about the restaurant’s dolmas, indicating most guests have praised them highly.  It’s easy to see why.  Served cold and nearly saturated in olive oil, the five grape leaves stuffed with seasoned rice are arranged in a star-shaped pattern surrounding a bowl of cucumber sauce.  They are not made in-house, but they’re a definite keeper.  At first bite, you’ll experience the sensation of what can only be described as effervescence, as if biting into a fizzy lemon-lime drink.  That, we discerned, is courtesy of the dynamic mingling of dill and mint, a sensation heightened by dipping the dolmas into the mint and yogurt enhanced cucumber sauce.  These are the best non-homemade dolmas we’ve had in Albuquerque.

Tagine of Chicken Mruzia

Tagine of Chicken Mruzia

23 January 2010: Given a choice of hummus or baba ganouch (usually spelled baba ghanouj), we always seem to prefer the latter in part because the name just rolls off your tongue so exotically, but mostly because it offers more textures and flavor than hummus.  An Arab dish made of mashed eggplant mixed with various seasonings, it’s also not quite as ubiquitous in the Duke City as is hummus.  The version at Marrakech is lighter, sweeter and less garlicky than others we’ve had.  Served with six wedges of pita bread, it is a very good baba ganouch.  24 February 2015:  The hummus is no slouch in the deliciousness department.  What makes it especially good is an optimal use (not too much, not too little) of garlic.

The entrees section of the menu includes a Mediterranean plate (Greek salad, dolmas and Spanakopita served with pita bread), a Mezza Plate (Greek salad, hummus and baba ganouch served with pita bread), a Falafel Plate, a Tunisian plate (brika served with rice or house salad), a Vegetarian Delight (Spanakopita, dolmas and pita bread), a Gyros plate and Moussaka.  It’s an inviting panoply of entrees, but they’re mostly Greek and at the risk of over-emphasizing this point, the Moroccan dishes offer more flavor.

Moroccan Lemon Chicken

The Moroccan dishes are appropriately listed in the “Specialties” section of the menu, but that title could be reduced by a few letters.  Call it “Special” and leave it at that because this section of the menu is indeed special.  The specialty of specialties, according to the menu cover, is the couscous.  Couscous is a North African staple and is the main ingredient in many dishes in the way rice is the main ingredient in so many Asian dishes.  In shape, color and texture, it even resembles rice.  It’s made from small grains of semolina with vegetables and sometimes meat.  Marrakech offers several couscous dishes.

23 January 2010: As an essayist of restaurant visits, it’s not very often I’m surprised by something I’ve never tried before.  The last time, in fact, I remember being surprised was at Pars Diner with a dish called Fesenjoon, a stew made from sauteed walnuts in pomegranate sauce.  Marrakech completely took me aback with an entree called King’s Bastilla. Though the word Bastilla, a Spanish word for “hem” is completely lost on me, the exotic dish blew me away.  It’s called “King’s Bastilla” because it’s served to esteemed guests at special occasions such as weddings. It is indeed a special dish worthy of royalty.

Traditionally, bastilla is made with pigeon, but Marrakech uses chicken instead.  A crisp, whisper-thin pastry shell made from Moroccan warqua or phyllo dough encloses an amalgam of moist chicken, ground almonds, rose water and spices.  The shell is sprinkled liberally with powdered sugar and cinnamon.  Quite honestly, it looks like a dessert and is in fact rather sweet, but definitely not cloying.  Its sweetness is acquired primarily from the delicate rose water and ameliorated by the powdered sugar.  It’s one of the most unique and delicious dishes I’ve had in the Duke City and frankly, I can’t wait to have it again.

23 January 2010: At most Moroccan restaurants, the most popular dishes tend to be Tagines, named for the special pot in which they’re prepared.  Tagines are slow-cooked stews braised at slow temperatures which result in aromatic vegetables, sauces and tender meats (generally lamb or chicken).  The Tagine of Chicken Mruzia, a marinated chicken breast cooked with dried plums, dried apricots, almonds and honey, topped with sesame seeds and served with rice, is a wonderful entree with a fine balance of sweet and savory flavors complemented by the tanginess of the reconstituted fruits.

24 February 2015:If there’s one flavor combination that’s often overlooked and certainly underused, it’s that of tart, salty and zesty (or acidic).  The notion of a dish possessing these properties brings an automatic lip-pursing reaction to many diners.  What makes these three flavor combinations work at the Kasbah Mediterranean is that they’re featured in perfect proportion to one another as they’re showcased in Moroccan Lemon Chicken.  The bitterly salty preserved lemons and briny, salty green olives are tempered by the delicate, beautifully seasoned chicken and its exotic spice profile.  This beautifully plated dish also includes two strips of fluffy rice which also serves as an excellent foil for the acidic-saltiness of a dish that won’t so much purse your lips as make your mouth water.

The Marrakech Express should head straight to 4801 Central Avenue for an exotic dining experience Duke City diners will want to repeat time and again.

Kasbah Mediterranean
4801 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 881-4451
LATEST VISIT: 24 February 2015
1st VISIT: 23 January 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Dolmas, Baba Ganouch, Tagine of Chicken Mruzia, King’s Bastilla, Hummus with Pita, Moroccan Lemon Chicken

Marrakech Kasbah Mediterranean Cuisine on Urbanspoon

The Safari Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Safari Grill launched in June, 2014

“The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what’s right
Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing that I’ve become.”
~ Africa by Toto

Shrouded in mist and steeped in myth and mystery, Mount Kilimanjaro attracts visitors from all over the world.  Often called “the roof of Africa,” the towering, snow-capped, conically-shaped mountain is the crown jewel of the United Republic of Tanzania.  At 19,340 feet, the magnificent freestanding peak commands the skies, looming over the plains of the bushveld savannah like a majestic sovereign keeping vigilant watch over her people. 

Majestic as it may be, Mount Kilimanjaro is far from Tanzania’s sole travel destination.  The country boasts of dozens of beautiful white sandy beaches such as those found in the island of Zanzibar.  A number of national parks, conservation areas and game reserves allow visitors to get up close and personal with lions, leopards, elephants, cheetah, giraffes, zebras,  jackals and thousands of migratory birds.  Tanzania is also one of Africa’s most popular safari destinations.

The Restaurant’s Interior Might Just Transport you to Tanzania

Now, safaris need not entail hunting animals in their natural habitat and trophies need not be stuffed and mounted.   Set against a backdrop of unrivaled natural beauty makes Tanzania one of the greatest wildlife photography safari destinations on the planet.  Photography safaris reward participants with an incomparable portfolio of wildlife and landscape images they’ll cherish for a long time. 

Whatever your reasons are for visiting Tanzania, you’ll also find the cuisine to be memorable and delicious.  The food culture of Tanzania is a fusion of Indian, Middle Eastern, and local African ingredients and cooking techniques. Knowing this, you might not do a double-take when you see chapatti and samosas on a menu at a Tanzanian restaurant and you’ll certainly discern the spices and aromatics of India when you taste the curries.

A very generous sample includes Samosas, Zucchini Chips, Calamari and a Variety of Sauces

The spirit and cuisine of Tanzania are alive and well in Albuquerque thanks to the June, 2014 launch of The Safari Grill on Albuquerque’s burgeoning far west side.  The Safari Grill occupies the space which previously housed California Pastrami, The Chili Stop and the Bombay Grill.  If the exterior architecture seems more befitting of a Chinese restaurant than an African-Indian restaurant, that’s because the edifice’s original tenant was indeed a long defunct Chinese eatery. The Safari Grill occupies the western-most section of the building, a small space accommodating but a handful of tables.

Before there was a Safari Grill, there was the Safari Street Grill, a food truck often parked at some of the city’s breweries which don’t serve food.  The Safari Street Grill gained a significant following, in some cases becoming the primary reason some patrons visited those breweries.  While not all mobile eatery operators aspire to diversifying their offerings by launching a brick and mortar operation, after nearly five years, the Safari Street Grill left the streets and settled into a cozy space.

Goat Stew with Rice

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say the Safari Grill’s new digs aren’t significantly larger than its mobile predecessor.  In a Lilliputian space offering limited seating, the Safari Grill has already established a fairly robust take-out operation.  Your first visit, however, should be an eat-in venture so you can interact with one of the most friendly and attentive families to operate a restaurant in Albuquerque.  The family is justifiably proud of the cuisine of their Tanzanian homeland and will bend over backwards to ensure you have a great dining experience. 

Your first visit should also include intrepid friends who’ll order something adventurous and don’t mind sharing their bounty.  For our inaugural visit we were joined by Hannah and Edward, themselves prolific food bloggers as well as nonpareil podcasters. Together we set off on a dining safari, exploring and experiencing as wide a swathe across the menu as we possibly could.  A fairly impressive menu belies the restaurant’s diminutive digs.

All beef short ribs

True to the restaurant’s name, featured fare includes a number of char-grilled entrees, each created from fresh prime cuts of meats marinated for more than 24 hours to ensure the peak of flavor.  For fire-eaters, sauces are applied before, during and after the grilling process to ensure the meats “bring the heat.”  Unless otherwise requested, all meats are cooked to Medium.   

12 July 2014: Your introduction to your dining safari should begin with a sampler platter, one featuring each of the three Indian-style samosas: veggie, marinated chicken and beef.   Samosas are delectable, triangle-shaped savory pastries stuffed with a variety of spiced ingredients and having a delightfully crispy exterior.  The Safari Grill serves them with a variety of housemade sauces: green chile, red chile, tamarind chutney and coconut chutney.  All three samosas are a real treat either by themselves or with the sauces, among which the green chile packed a piquant punch.

Curry Corn

12 July 2014: Our sampler platter also included zucchini chips served with Ranch dressing and calamari served with cocktail sauce.  Shaped rather like Coke bottle tops, the zucchini chips are lightly battered then fried to a golden hue.  Though not quite al dente, the zucchini chips are moist and crisp.  The calamari strips are light and delicate, wholly unlike the rubbery ringlet-shaped calamari.  The only appetizer we didn’t sample were the tandoori-style “elevated” wings. 

12 July 2014: For many people the world over, stew is the ultimate comfort food.  The special of the day during our inaugural visit was goat stew with rice, a rich, filling and nicely spiced exemplar of comfort food stews.  Long and slow simmering renders the goat meat falling-off-the-bone tender.  That’s an absolute necessity because there are a lot of bones in goat stew.  This allows for long, loving lingering of every morsel.

Indian-Style Fish and Chips with Sliced Sauteed Potatoes

12 July 2014: The all-beef short ribs, available in quantities of three, six or a dozen, will probably remind you of Korean beef kalbi without the sweet barbecue sauce.  The Safari Grill’s short ribs are marinated and seasoned to imbue them with bold, addictive flavors.  You’ll enjoy gnawing on each meaty morsel of these finger-licking ribs though it may take more than a half dozen to sate you.  Fortunately all entrees come with your choice of one side. 

12 July 2014: The consensus best side from among the four we enjoyed was the curry corn.  While corn is often thought of as a summer dish, it’s transformed into a dish for all seasons with the addition of a hearty curry.  Each sweet corn niblet is punctuated with mildly spicy, wonderfully pungent and delightfully aromatic curry.  Curry corn is an idea whose time has come.  It’s a wonderful departure from buttered corn.

Curried Chickpea and Potato Stew with Lays Potato Chips

12 July 2014: The Safari Grill’s unique twist to classic “fish and chips” features two filets of somewhat thickly-battered salmon fused with East Indian flavors served with lightly pan-fried, seasoned sliced potatoes.  Perhaps attributable to high heat, the salmon is just a bit on the desiccated side, but it’s still light and delicate.  The sliced sauteed potatoes are a highlight, especially with a little bit of the green chile. 

12 July 2014: As a precocious child, I often experimented with food, adulterating dishes otherwise lacking in personality with sundry ingredients.  Crumbled potato chips on pinto beans was among my favorites.  I’d long thought only children liked crumbling potato chips on their food, but at the Safari Grill, one dish actually encourages it.  Who are we to argue with savvy cooks.  That dish is the curried chickpea and potato stew which is actually served with a side of Lays potato chips.  The staff calls it an Indian Style Frito Pie.  You’ll call it surprisingly good.

Southwest Burger, Salsa and Chips and Curry Corn

14 November 2014: While my friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate and his assistant, the dazzling Deanell Collins, have enjoyed the Safari Grill’s exotic offerings, they also rave about the burgers.  All too often international restaurants don’t infuse their nation’s culinary elements and personality into American food favorites such as burgers.  As a result, burgers at international restaurants tend to either mimic burgers you can get at virtually every American restaurant or they fall short. 

At the Safari Grill, the hand-formed ground beef patties are infused with Tanzanian seasonings that liven up the beef which is then char-grilled to the level of juicy deliciousness and topped with roasted green chile and thinly-sliced avocado all deposited gently on a toasted brioche bun. Very thinly-sliced onion, tomatoes and lettuce are served on the side along with ramekins of mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise, none of which are needed. This is a burger you can enjoy “competition style” with only beef, bun and green chile.  It’s an excellent burger with more personality and flair and best of all, it doesn’t detract from the high standards of New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile cheeseburgers.

Fruit Cup Sorbet

12 July 2014: The menu features only one dessert, but it’s a good one. The fruit cup sorbet dessert features fruit “cups” made from actual fruit shells: a pineapple shell for pineapple sorbet, a coconut shell for coconut sorbet, a lemon shell for pomegranate sorbet and a hollowed-out orange half for mango sorbet. Unlike some sorbets, these taste like the fruits they’re supposed to be. They’re served chilled and provide a wonderful respite from the sweltering summer heat.

With a little imagination, the Safari Grill could become your own culinary safari adventure on the Serengeti with an exotic and delicious cuisine all adventurous diners will enjoy.

The Safari Grill
3600 Hwy 528, Suite B
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 897-0505
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 14 November 2014
1st VISIT: 12 July 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Appetizer Sampler (Samosas, Calamari, Zucchini Chips), Goat Stew, Curry Corn, Curried Chickpea and Potato Stew, Fruit Cup Sorbet, Indian-Style Fish and Chips, All Beef Short Ribs, Southwest Burger

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