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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
LATEST VISIT: 14 November 2014
1st VISIT: 12 July 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
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