The Safari Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico
“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.
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.
The spirit and cuisine of Tanzania are alive and well in Albuquerque with The Safari Grill which first launched in June, 2014 in Albuquerque’s burgeoning far west side. For two years, the Safari Grill occupied the space which previously housed California Pastrami, The Chili Stop and the Bombay Grill. The Safari Grill was located on the western-most section of the building, a small space accommodating but a handful of tables. When the restaurant closed its doors in 2016, a pall of sadness beset the Duke City, but particularly the west side which had embraced the restaurant’s innovative take on African-Indian fusion with a chile-infused hint of the Land of Enchantment. Moreover, they lamented the all too frequent turn-around of restaurants in a Bermuda Triangle-like area where every restaurant, no matter how good, has been short-lived.
Before there was a Safari Grill, there was the NY’s 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. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say the Safari Grill’s first brick-and-mortar digs weren’t significantly larger than its mobile predecessor. In a Lilliputian space offering limited seating, the Safari Grill quickly established a fairly robust take-out operation.
In June, 2018, founding owner Bill Young and his business partners reopened The Safari Grill in a much larger edifice and entirely different neighborhood. The new space is a 3,300-square-foot complex on the western fringes of Nob Hill which previously housed Brasserie La Provence. It’s a capacious space thematically adorned with East African wildlife. As with our inaugural visit in 2014, our first visit at the new restaurant allowed us to interact with one of the most friendly and attentive families to operate a restaurant in Albuquerque. Shaina, whose aunt is Bill’s mother, treated us as well as a doting mother would treat her children. She is an outstanding hostess and ambassador for Safari Grill.
Joining me was my increasingly intrepid friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver who frequented the west side location and lamented its closure. Together we set off on a dining safari, exploring and experiencing as wide a swathe across the menu as we possibly could. Perusing the menu was akin to visiting with an old friend. We were already familiar with many, if not all, the items being offered. 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.
26 June 2018: We hadn’t been seated long before Shaina brought us a complementary bowl of chips and salsa, a New Mexican restaurant standard. The chips were a far cry from the fried corn tortillas we use to scoop up as much salsa as they will bear. The chips were very light and thin, seasoned with flavorful Indian spices. They were made not from corn tortillas, but from the same light, crispy dough used to create Safari Grill’s fabulous samosas. It’s not very often we enjoy chips sans salsa, but these chips are absolutely delightful. So is the salsa which has a nice piquancy and plenty of native New Mexican roasted chile flavor.
26 June 2018: There are few things in life my friend Sr. Plata enjoys as much as he does short ribs, which the menu describes as “perfection at its finest.” The menu also invites diners to “be the judge” and find out for themselves why these ribs are worthy of adulation. These thin-cut all-beef ribs served on a sizzling platter with house slaw are superb, delicious and tempting enough to convert the most staunch vegans. Available in quantities of three to four or four to six, they’re vaguely reminiscent 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, but it’s their smokiness that seals the deal. Once they cool down, you’ll thoroughly enjoy gnawing on each meaty morsel of these finger-licking ribs though it may take more than a half dozen to sate you.
While my friends Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate and Dazzling (that really should be her first name) Deanell, 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 mimic burgers you can get at virtually every American restaurant and fall woefully short.
At the Safari Grill, the Southwest Burger showcases hand-formed ground beef patties 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.
26 June 2018: After a forced two-year abstinence from Safari Grill’s beauteous burgers, I deferred to Shaina’s expertise as to which burger to order. Her highest recommendation was for the eponymous Safari Burger (fresh herbs and spices infused in a ground beef patty and chargrilled to perfection served with lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup, mustard or mayo on request). She recommended having it “Safari Style” which means a haystack sized topping of coleslaw. Sides of Safari Grill’s wondrous tamarind sauce and a green chile salsa also accompanied the burger as well as an order of cassava fries. The burger was everything I remember it being though I made a mess of it by using up all the tamarind sauce and salsa. The chargrilled ground beef patty is thick, at least eight ounces. All beef patties should be seasoned this well. All burgers should be this good!
26 June 2018: : Our consensus best side 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. We’re not the only ones to think so. Several years ago, the curry corn earned a “Hot Plate” award from Albuquerque The Magazine designating it as “the side dish Albuquerque can’t live without.”
26 June 2018: The “Sizzling Sides” section of the menu lists eight options, any of which would be a terrific addition to your meal. Though our June, 2018 visit came on a day forecast to top the dreaded 100 degrees, we couldn’t pass up the dal lentil soup. Dal, a term which refers to both the legumes used in the prepared dish and the dish itself, is one of the most popular dishes in Nepal and India. While seasonings can vary, we discerned onion, turmeric, ginger, cumin and chilies of some sort. At least that’s what we thought we discerned. We were too busy enjoying it that we didn’t spend much time contemplating its ingredients.
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
3001 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 June 2018
1st VISIT: 12 July 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
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