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Talking Drums – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Talking Drums: African and Caribbean Cuisine

There is strength in Africa.
Not the crushing brute strength of the bull elephant.
Nor the rigid, unyielding strength of the Kilimanjaro.
But a calm, enduring strength,
the kind of abiding strength that will not waiver
in the face of adversity, loss or hardship.
It is the quiet strength of the African woman.”

Quiet strength.  That uplifting affirmation, inscribed on a framed poster, hangs on a wall at Talking Drums, Albuquerque’s very first African restaurant.  It provides inspiration to and could have been written about Toyin Oladeji, the risk-taking proprietor, chef and daring entrepreneur who’s betting the Duke City is ready for the incomparable cuisine of her homeland.  Toyin (who’s mistakenly called Toni so often, she goes by that name) already provides one niche service, owning and operating the only African store in New Mexico and Arizona.   Her Zenith African Caribbean Market has been serving the area with groceries, clothing, beauty products, arts and crafts for more than a decade.  In launching Talking Drums, she’s filling another niche. 

The name Talking Drums is derived from a prominent method of communication throughout West Africa, especially during festive occasions and in Africa there is nothing more festive than sharing foods.  West Africa is comprised of some sixteen countries including Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone.  Any of West Africa’s reciprocal culinary influences with the United States came about largely because of the shameful blight of the slave trade.  Anyone acquainted with the cuisine of America’s southern states may not even realize their favorite dishes had their genesis in Africa.  Similarly, ships sailing to Africa transported indigenous crops of the America.  Together, these factors helped craft today’s West African diet, one celebrated by Talking Drums.

Toyin Oladeji, the effervescent chef and owner of Albuquerque’s first African restaurant

The Global Gourmet characterizes West African cuisine as “heavy with starch, light on meat and generous on fat.”  It’s a diet  replete with root vegetables, cereal grains, rice, plantains, peanuts and citrus fruits, all of which can be prepared in a variety of ways: baked, roasted, mashed, coupled with other ingredients and served in a range of both sweet and savory dishes.  More than any other region in the continent, the West African diet is also rich in seafood, where it is often mixed with meats in some form of stew.  Peanuts are ubiquitous, served in soups, stews, snacks or ground into a paste.  The most prominent starch, however, is rice which is plentiful thanks to the abundance of rains. 

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of both the West African climate and its cuisine is heat.  To combat the oppressive heat and humidity, cooks tend to be heavy-handed with chiles (sounds like my kind of people).  Chile peppers–including such incendiary varieties as Scotch Bonnets and the pilli pilli–are used beyond the extent most Americans (maybe not New Mexicans) might consider hot.  Hot foods produce the effect of “gustatory sweating” which has an overall cooling effect on the body.  They also generate endorphins, natural painkillers that may produce a temporary “high”. So, the more chiles you eat, the stronger the soothing effect.

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The front dining room at Talking Drums

Talking Drums is located on San Pedro just north of Gibson and next door to Cervantes, a long-time purveyor of incendiary chiles.  It occupies the Mayan pyramidal edifice which was once home to Hunan Chinese Restaurant and which has also housed a number of other eateries.   Remnants of a previous occupant can still be seen, most prominently on a beaded door curtain depicting life in Vietnam.  The restaurant’s walls are festooned with colorful African art, including one portraying an elderly African woman lacing the skin on a pair of drums.

The front of the house is in the capable hands of Alex, as genial and helpful as any host we’ve ever met, a man for whom the emphasis on the word gentleman is on “gentle.”  Let Alex be your culinary guide.  His knowledge of the menu is encyclopedic and he’s more than happy and proud to explain each and every nuance of the cuisine of his homeland.  It’s how I got the information for this review, but more importantly, it’s why we ordered the items we enjoyed so thoroughly.  In a living example of seven degrees of Kevin Bacon, we also discovered our mutual acquaintance of several Nigerian Catholic priests who visit Talking Drums to get their fix of West African cuisine.

Ginger beer, one of many unique beverages available at Talking Drums

17 March 2012: The appetizers and snacks section of the menu may be a bit daunting because descriptions are not provided.  You’ll recognize some of the items, but others–African spices suya, puff puff, moin moin, Akara–may as well be….well, from Africa, and indeed, many of the ingredients are imported directly from the plateau continent.  Allow Alex to describe each dish, how it is prepared and its significance to the West African diet.  It’s a terrific lesson in the authenticity of a cuisine heretofore unknown to most in the Duke City.  Now, you may have visited the fabulous Santa Fe gem Jambo Cafe where the Swahili cuisine of East Africa is featured, and while there are some similarities, there are significant differences.  I also suspect Talking Drums is quite a bit more authentic.

Talking Drums has an enviable beer and wine list which includes African red and white wines as well as Jamaican and African beers.  The last item on the list of beverages is “Coca Cola products,” the same boring standards you can have anywhere else in Albuquerque.  Start your African-Caribbean adventure with something different, perhaps coconut juice;  Champagne cola; pineapple, pear or passion fruit sodas; or better still, have a JCs Reggae Country Style Brand: Ginger Beer Non-Alcoholic Soda.  It’s akin to an adult root beer and is refreshing and delicious as any beverage.

Moin Moin (top) and African spiced suya

17 March 2012: As Alex was explaining the appetizers to us, the one which seemed to excite him most was something called moin moin.  We couldn’t help but be caught up in his excitement for this traditional Nigerian steamed bean  dish made from a mixture of black-eyed beans, onions and freshly ground peppers then served in a single-portion timbale shape.  Texturally, it is similar to  Thanksgiving dressing, but more dense.  Tiny red flecks of piquant peppers foretell the light heat emanating from this small, but delicious appetizer.  It’s no wonder Alex enjoys this dish so much.

17 March 2012: Alex also sold us on African spiced suya,essentially a Nigerian shish kebab (roasted skewered meat) with a peanut-spice rub.  In Nigeria, it is offered both in restaurants and by street vendors and is a favorite national snack.  It bears little semblance to Thai and Malaysian satay which is typically served with a sweet peanut sauce.  The peanut-spice rub used on suya is savory with pronounced heat generated by cayenne peppers and other spices.  At first bite, the meat may seem a bit dry, but that’s just the presence of spices talking.  Flavor-wise, the meat is reminiscent of a terrific beef jerky with a complex spice flavor. 

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Appetizer Sampler: Suya, moin-moin ,puff-puff and fried plantain

11 January 2014: An even better option is the appetizer sampler which includes the aforementioned moin-moin and suya as well as two puff puffs and fried plantains.  “Puff puff,” which may sound as much an active verb as it does a noun is a traditional Nigerian food somewhat resembling fried donut holes.  The puff puffs aren’t overly sweet and might benefit from some topping (confectioner’s sugar, cinnamon, etc.), but they’re good in their own right.  The fried plantains are excellent, also not overly sweet.

17 March 2012: The menu isn’t entirely West African.  A selection of Caribbean dishes is also available on the Talking Drums menu and that, too, makes sense considering how many people were transported as slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean and how ingredients indigenous to the Caribbean were transported back to West Africa.  The most obvious commonality is the use of piquant chiles which were introduced to West Africa by the Portuguese in the 16th century.  Almost synonymous with Caribbean cuisine is the term “jerk’ which describes the seasoning and preparation of meats in a style originated in Jamaica.  The meat is first marinated for hours in a spicy blend of peppers, scallion, thyme and pimento seeds then cooked over an outdoor pit lined with pimento wood over low heat.  The low heat allows the meat to cook slowly, retaining its natural juices which are infused with the flavor of spices and wood.

    Jerk chicken, the very best we've found in New Mexico!!!

Jerk chicken, the very best we’ve found in New Mexico!!!

17 March 2012: At the risk of hyperbole, the jerk chicken at Talking Drums is not only the best we’ve experienced in New Mexico,but perhaps everywhere else.  Served on a bed of white rice, two chicken thighs are infused with an assertive jerk seasoning, the beguiling fragrance of which wafts toward your waiting nostrils with a siren’s irresistible call.  The chicken is moist and tender, but its most endearing quality is that it allows the deep, emphatic penetration of the slightly sweet, pleasantly piquant jerk seasoning.  I should qualify that for me it was pleasantly piquant.  My Kim’s coughing, sputtering and watering eyes must have said something else though she couldn’t stop eating it.

17 March 2012: Among the more intriguing items on the menu are pepper soup meals, a traditional Nigerian specialty as esteemed and beloved in Nigeria as chicken or tomato soup are in the United States.  Despite the name and prominence of piquancy, peppers are far from the only component of this dish.  A mixture of local (to Africa) herbs and spices lend the qualities of pungency, fragrance and herbaceousness.  By itself, the broth is fantastic, as wonderful as any broth on any soup we’ve had in New Mexico, but this isn’t solely a broth-based soup.  Three options are available: assorted meat (including tripe and entrails, goat meat and fresh fish.  The fresh fish is a thick and meaty catfish served in its entirety head to tail (don’t dare turn down the catfish head which is replete with flavor).  Plucking the fish from the scales is an easy and delicious adventure considering how well the fish is prepared.  This is a Souper Bowl award-winning quality elixir! 

Fresh Fish Pepper Soup Meal

11 January 2014: In its annual “Best of Burque Restaurants” edition for 2013, Alibi readers voted Talking Drums Albuquerque’s “best place for adventurous diners” then synopsized that selection with the asinine comment “That hamburger is good, but you’d rather be eating monkey brains.”  Alibi readers also indicated that Ethiopian cuisine is the “Most Wanted Ethnic Cuisine That’s Not in Albuquerque.”  That’s a sentiment so many savvy and well-traveled diners have long expressed.  Shortly before the Best of Burque results were published, Talking Drums Introduced “Injera Fridays.”  

11 January 2014: If you’ve never had the opportunity to enjoy Ethiopian cuisine, especially injera, you’re in for a treat.  Injera (pronounced in-jeer-ah) is a thin, crepe like bread with a not-so-subtle to very subtle sourdough-like taste depending on how much teff (the smallest grain in the world) is used in its preparation. Ethiopian meals are typically eaten by tearing off a piece of injera with your hands (an experience that may remind you of tearing fabric) then scooping up your vegetables and meats with it (very similarly to how native New Mexicans use tortillas).

Ethiopian Deliciousness: Injera, Beef, Chicken and Collard Greens

Ethiopian Deliciousness: Injera, Beef, Chicken and Collard Greens

11 January 2014: An injera meal at Talking Drums includes injera (of course) and your choice of three other dishes.  My Kim, never before having seen injera wondered why my food was served on top of a doily.   Though it may have resembled a doily, its texture is somewhat akin to a chamois and its color to a blue corn crepe.  Our injera was made with 100% neff which means sour though not to an off-putting degree.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to contemplate what injera might taste like with real maple syrup and maybe some goat cheese (yes, altogether).

11 January 2014: The three items Alex recommended were beef, chicken and collard greens.  The collard greens are prepared the West African way which means no bacon in the manner to which Americans may be accustomed.  In fact, aside from olive oil and seasonings, these greens are surprisingly devoid of ingredients, but are imbued with a magnificent flavor profile.  Both the ground beef and chicken are seasoned with berbere, an Ethiopian spice mixture comprised of chili peppers, garlic, ginger, dried basil, fenugreek and other agents of deliciousness.  The berbere adds more than the element of heat, but it’s the heat you’ll notice first.  In fact, the beef and chicken may be even more piquant than the jerk chicken.  They’re also blessed with the type of deliciousness that imprints itself on your taste buds and memories.

Because I don’t have a drum to do my talking for me, this review will have to suffice. Talking Drums is an exciting find, one adventurous diners should not miss.  If you love exciting and invigorating flavors that remain with you, this is one of the very best restaurants in Albuquerque of any genre.   Before you leave the premises, visit the Zenith African Caribbean Market next door and pick up African and Caribbean comestibles.

Talking Drums
1218 San Pedro, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 792-3221
Web Site
LATEST VISIT:  11 January 2014
1st VISIT: 17 March 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fresh Fish Pepper Soup Meal, Jerk Chicken, Moin Moin, African spiced suya, Injera, Collard Greens, Ethiopian Beef and Chicken


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Talking Drums African Cuisine on Urbanspoon

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.

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. 

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.

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

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.

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. 

    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: 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.

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.

Grilled jerk organic chicken

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

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

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.

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.

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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: 3 January 2014
1st VISIT: 19 March 2011
# of VISITS: 3
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


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Jambo Cafe on Urbanspoon

Rafiki Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Rafiki01

Rafiki Cafe, Albuquerque’s first and only Kenyan cafe

Let us break bread and celebrate our diversity.”
~Desmond Tutu

Peruvian cuisine…been there, done that!  Moroccan meals…that’s so yesterday.  Persian food…it’s had its day.  Pan Asian dining…erstwhile eating.  Never mind Italian regional cuisine and Spanish tapas.  Once fresh and nouveau, they’re now practically prehistoric.  Who would have thought ten years ago that the Duke City would become so cosmopolitan, so open to multicultural culinary elements from all over the world?  Who would have guessed that cuisine once considered exotic and alien would become just another welcome part of the culinary climate?

In contemporary times fashioned by an interconnected world, a community of intrepid diners in Albuquerque has become very receptive and accepting of new foods. We embrace diversity, craving adventurous eating and won’t hesitate to try anything new. In fact, we sometimes prefer to try something new than to return to something we’ve already experienced. We rarely order the same thing twice. Leave the aversion to change and to trying new things to the “chain gangs,” those diners who find comfort in the mundanity of chain restaurants.

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The interior of Rafiki Cafe

One of the exotic cuisines which has recently gained a foothold in the Duke City culinary scene is African cuisine though that term is very generalized and wholly inaccurate. As the planet’s second largest continent, African is home to hundreds of diverse cultural and ethnic groups. That diversity extends across localized culinary traditions, available ingredients, preparation styles and cooking techniques. It’s a diversity influenced for many by the ongoing struggle for sustenance.

The introduction to African food for many New Mexicans was courtesy of the amazing Jambo Cafe, one of Santa Fe’s very best restaurants of any genre. Jambo is the perennial winner of Santa Fe’s Souper Bowl competition and one of those rare restaurants in which culinary epiphanies (think all 10,000 of your taste buds erupting in choruses of Alleluia) occur with every visit. The genesis of Jambo’s award-winning cuisine is Lamu, a small Equatorial island off the coast of Kenya.

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Beef Sambusas

The Duke City’s first African restaurant was Talking Drums, an exciting eatery showcasing the cuisine of West Africa. Talking Drums opened in February, 2012 to significant critical acclaim. Fifteen months later, the Rafiki Café opened its doors. Rafiki, a Swahili word which means “friend” specializes in the cuisine of Kenya, a sovereign nation in East Africa straddling the Equator and bordering the Indian Ocean on its southeast. As with many ancient culinary cultures, Kenyan cooking draws upon diverse ethnic traditions merged with seasonings and techniques of other countries, especially India.

Knowing this, you might not do a double-take when you see chapatti and sambusa on Rafiki’s menu and you’ll certainly discern the spices and aromatics of India when you taste the curry. Indian influences have their roots in colonial times when more than 32,000 indentured laborers were brought in from India to construct railroads. When the railroad was completed, many of the laborers chose to settle in the area and brought their families over. The melding of two ancient culinary cultures is a delicious one.

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From top: Ugali, Rice, Cabbage

Ensconced in the timeworn Morningside Shopping Center on a section of Lomas in which restaurants of any type are few and far in between, Rafiki Café could pass from the outside for an Italian café and, in fact, its predecessor in the shopping center was La Dolce Vita Bakery. Interior ambience, however, cannot be mistaken for anything but Africa in its exotic splendor. Colorful tapestries adorn the walls and decorative scarves double as curtains. The flag of Kenya, sporting a traditional Masasai shield and two spears hangs proudly on the servers’ station.

In keeping with the translation of its name, the motto posted on Rafiki’s Facebook page is “a stranger is a friend you are yet to meet.” There are no strangers at Rafiki. From the moment you step through the doors, you are treated warmly, like a welcome guest. Don’t hesitate to ask any questions about the menu or the restaurant. The family who owns and operates Rafiki is very proud of their native land’s cuisine. Gladys, the owner and chef, wants very much for her guests to enjoy their visit and will check up on you faithfully to make sure of that.

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Chicken Curry

Even before you set foot inside Rafiki, the intoxicating aromas will ensnare you. Peruse the menu and unless you’re already well-acquainted with Kenyan cuisine, you still won’t know the genesis of those aromas. Let the staff be your guide if you want, but for a truly adventurous dining experience, just order randomly from the menu. Everything we tried was wonderful. We knew it would be from the first bite of our sambusas. Sambusas are more than a case of “you say samosa, I say sambusa.” Sambusas are Ethiopian samosas, thinner than their Indian counterpart. Sambusas are fried savory pastry dough wrapped around a filling, be it vegetarian or ground beef. The ground beef filling, seasoned with lively Kenyan spices, is terrific. To keep peace in the family, request two orders…or ten. You’ll be hooked.

In addition to assorted salads of the day, the menu offers several vegetarian entrees. Main entrees are accompanied by very complementary sides that include ugali, a very common Kenyan food staple. Ugali is made from corn or maize flour and boiling water heated until formed into a dense block of cornmeal paste. By itself, the ugali seems coarse and heavy, but it’s not necessarily intended to be consumed on its own. Dip it into one of Rafiki’s stews like a sopping quality bread and it’s very enjoyable.

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Gee’s Special Karanga Beef Stew

Another side served with a main dish is cabbage, a vitamin-rich vegetable and staple in Kenya. The cabbage is finely chopped (though not as finely as coleslaw) and prepared with tomatoes and onions, all fried together until crispy. It’s a delightfully simple dish with more flavor than you might imagine. Rice, another Kenyan staple is also served with main dishes. It’s a rather plain rice, not that there’s anything wrong with that. One side you should always order is chapatti, the Indian flatbread made with a flour dough and fashioned into a coil before being rolled into a flat, circular shape. It is then fried on an oily skillet which renders the chapatti crisp on the edges, but moist and doughy on the inside. Rafiki’s chapatti is as good as any you’ll find in Albuquerque’s Indian restaurants.

The fusion of Indian and Kenyan cooking is perhaps no more evident than in chicken curry, an entrée so wondrously fragrant that may remind you of walking into an excellent Indian restaurant. Unlike some Indian curries which tend to be rather creamy and thick, this one is more “brothy,” like a soup. Served in a “right-sized” bowl (meaning it isn’t the swimming pool you get at some Vietnamese restaurants), the soup is redolent with the captivating aroma of curry melding with complementary, exotic Kenyan spices. Rafiki is very generous with chicken, both in the amount and in the size of each piece. This curry dish ranks up there with some of the very best Thai and Indian curries in Albuquerque. It’s a winner!

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Chapati and Cabbage

For comfort food, Kenyan cuisine has got to rank right up there with Southern cooking. One of the best exemplars of Kenyan comfort food is its Karanga beef stew, a well-seasoned, but not spicy, soup constructed with garlic, spices, onions and herbs. It’s easy to imagine yourself luxuriating in a steamy bowl of Karanga beef stew on a blustery day, but it’s delicious in any season. The beef is tender and delicious with the influence of Kenyan spices and herbs permeating deeply. Perhaps even more than the chicken curry, this stew is a perfect vehicle for the ugali.

Kenyan desserts may not be especially well known, but that’s only because they’re not ubiquitous as is chocolate, for example. One dessert which would be a hit with any diner sporting a sweet tooth is the Wali, a white rice cooked with grated coconut meat to create a sweet-savory twist to plain rice. Sprinkled with cinnamon, this dessert will remind you of a combination of Thai sticky rice and New Mexican sweet rice. It’s the best of both worlds, actually, a delicious rice encircled with fresh sliced fruit.

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Ice cream with fruit and Wali (coconut rice with fruit)

Rafiki provides another wonderful option for adventurous diners who recognize there is deliciousness in every cuisine on the world culinary stage. Kenyan cuisine is diverse, delicious, comforting and nourishing and Rafiki prepares it very well.

Rafiki Cafe
4300 Lomas, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-1906
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 June 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Beef Sambusa, Chicken Curry, Karanga Beef Stew, Chapati, Cabbage, Rice, Ugali, Wali with fruit


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