Jambo Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 2013: Jerk 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
2010 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 April 2015
1st VISIT: 19 March 2011
# of VISITS: 4
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