The Safari Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)
“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 restaurant, there was the NY’s Grill, a mobile food kitchen (that’s food truck to you, Bob) often parked at some of the city’s breweries which don’t serve food. The NY’s 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 NY’s 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 Nabil 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.
Shaina was the mastermind behind the Safari Grill’s 2019 launch of a Chai Bar, a cafe specializing in premium chai tea and Ayurvedic drinks. “Chai tea” is, in fact, a redundant. In many parts of the world, chai IS tea, more specifically a spiced milk tea that has swept the planet. The olfactory-arousing spices used to prepare the tea include cardamom, ginger, pepper, cloves and cinnamon. Chai produces a soothing, warming effect, acts as a natural digestive aid and imparts a sense of well-being. Salubrious as the chai may be, for me there’s nothing comparable to a hot cup of coffee when I need a pick-me-up. The Safari Grill one-ups most coffees with a delicious masala coffee spiced with cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and milk. Sr. Plata and I had three cups.
Joining me on all four of my visits to the Safari Grill has been 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.
26 June 2018: At the Safari Grill, the Southwest Burgershowcases 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.
7 August 2019: Only a culture renowned for bold flavors would use such adjectives as “bland” and “tasteless” to describe one of the world’s most popular foods, but that’s precisely how some food writers in India describe English-style fish and chips. If the Indian-style fish and chips (sautéed salmon filet served with thinly sliced potatoes in a light tomato curry sauce served with a grilled wheat or flour tortilla on the side) at the Safari Grill are any indication, those writers have a point. Unlike English-style fish and chips, you wouldn’t dream of drenching this salmon filet with about half a bottle of malt vinegar. Nor do Indian-style fish and chips have that characteristic golden batter. The salmon filet is definitely the star of the this show. It’s delicate and flaky with the tomato curry sauce imparting savory pungent notes, but still allowing the salmon to shine. The thinly sliced potatoes are quite a departure from the mountain of French fries that constitute the “chips” portion of the plate.
7 August 2019: Though it was originally conceived in, of all places, Glasgow, Scotland, chicken tikka masala is one of the most popular Indian dishes in the world. The creamy tomato-and-chicken curry dish is so esteemed that many diners don’t realize its progenitor was actually chicken tikka, literally small chunks of boneless chicken. The Safari Grill describes its chicken tikka as “a juicy, succulent full of flavor chicken breast chargrilled and served atop the house slaw with a roasted corn-on-the-cob.” My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver describes it as absolutely delicious. Readers of Gil’s Thrilling… might recall how your humble blogger considers chicken “the most boring of all proteins.” That description doesn’t apply to the chicken tikka at the Safari Grill. Chef Young manages to seal in moistness in the chicken breast, characteristically the most bland and desiccated portion of the chicken. Moreover he imbues the chicken breast with the incomparable flavors of Indian spices coupled with the smokiness of the chargrilling process.
2 October 2019: In his top ten hit Lemon Tree, American singer Trini Lopez warned that “the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.” Talk about selling lemons short. With their tart, acidic, bright sweet and sour qualities, lemons are actually the most versatile fruit on Earth, in and out of the kitchen. Despite that versatility and definitely because so many people find their tartness off-putting, lemons are vastly underutilized in savory dishes where they’re used most often in a supporting role or paired with other flavor profiles. Among the few exceptions is avgolemono, a traditional Greek soup made with chicken broth, rice or orzo, eggs, and lemon juice (the more the better).
If you find deliciousness in tart tastes that really purse your lips with sour citrus notes, the Safari Grill’s chicken chuku chuku is for you. It may be the most unique lemon chicken dish I’ve ever had. It is certainly the most lemony. It even looks lemony with its bright, sunny yellow color punctuated by bite-sized chunks of chicken, onions, tomato and cabbage. The yellowish hue is actually courtesy of turmeric, an Indian spice prominent in Ayurvedic cooking. Fresh lemons may contribute only a little bit of color, but they sure do impart their tartness. The broth of the chicken chuku chuku is more soupy than it is stew-like, but it’s got plenty of texture with its vegetables as well as the pita wedges. Shaina recommended I cut the pita into bite-sized pieces and place them in the chuku chuku. It was a great suggestion for a great dish.
2 October 2019: After taming the flame, it didn’t take prehistoric man long to arrive at a eureka “necessity is the mother of invention” moment. Suffering severe burns while attempting to extricate meats from open flames with their bare, hairy hands, prompted prehistoric man to figure out that masticating meat on a stick was greatly preferable. The inventiveness of our intrepid progenitors gave rise over the millennia to skewers, shish kebab, speidini, brochettes, satay, yakitori and even the dreaded corn dog. Carnivores the world over owe a debt of gratitude to Fred Flintstone and his contemporaries.
At the risk of being skewered myself, I’ll put Tanzanian mishkaki skewers against any of the aforementioned skewer styles…at least the way they’re prepared at the Safari Grill. Your choice of chicken, steak or shrimp is chargrilled to seal in the flavors of the restaurant’s signature marinade which includes paprika, red chile and a number of other wondrous spices. Each moist and tender skewer is imbued with the distinctive flame-kissed flavors and the exotic spices that confirm Marco Polo’s journey was worth it. Seriously, these skewers are so good they’d make converts of the most devout vegan. The miskaki skewers are served with pita wedges, coleslaw and Safari Grill’s uniquely seasoned green chile, an addictive East Africa meets New Mexico blend.
9 October 2019: Burger King and its “have it your way” mantra has nothing on the dozens of Duke City restaurants who demonstrate the versatility of their entrees by offering “build your own” options. Creative diners can typically build their own tacos, wraps, bowls and salads. While all that’s good and exciting, the Safari Grill invites you to “Build Your Own Adventure.” Doesn’t that sound more exotic than build your own taco. The base for your adventure can be a tako (flour or corn tortilla), wrap (grilled pita), bowl (rice pilaf or saffron) or salad (spring mix. Next, you choose your own protein: char-grilled chicken breast, char-grilled steak, lamb and beef (seasoned kebab), shrimp (sauteed in a tandoori sauce), salmon (grilled in a tandoori sauce) or veggie (blend of cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, zucchini and onions in coconut sauce). Step 3 is choosing your own style: Safari (house slaw and sauce), Street (fresh cilantro, onion, lime), Classic (lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese) or Mediterranean (cucumber slaw and yoghurt sauce. Finally, you can top it with housemade salsa, green chile chutney, tamarind chutney, cool cucumber sauce, creamy guacamole, chipotle ranch or “Inferno.”
Only a photo safari in Tanzania could possibly offer you as much versatility as Safari Grill’s “Build Your Own Adventure.” As much fun as it is to eat one of these paragons of delicious diversity, those of us for whom changing our minds is a prerogative may find it quite a challenge to decide what combination to enjoy. Fortunately the perpetually smiling Shaina has the patience of a saint and the wisdom of Solomon. Let her be your guide on your adventure. My inaugural adventure was in the form of a bowl with the lamb and beef, coleslaw and two sauces tamarind chutney and cool cucumber sauce. The cool cucumber sauce, of course, is a natural Middle Eastern inspired pairing with the lamb and beef amalgam which certainly will remind you of your favorite seasoned kebab. Prepared at about a medium degree of doneness, the lamb and beef amalgam is absolutely delicious. Safari Grill procures its lamb from Keller’s Farm Store in Albuquerque. It’s a high quality lamb as denizens of the Duke City know. My adventure was amazing!
In July, 2019, the Food Network’s premiered a Bite Club episode dubbed “Duel in the Desert which pitted three of the Duke City’s most talented chefs–Kenny Wang of O Ramen, Marie Yniguez of Bocadillos Slow Roasted and Nabil Young of Safari Grill–against each other in a culinary competition to determine who would become hometown Bite Club champ. Chef Young won the first round with a creation of chorizo kebabs with mushroom curry and mustard seed rice and a side of green chile chutney. In doing so, he earned a five minute advantage in the second round. Unfortunately he accidentally cut his finger and lost precious minutes. Though all three Duke City chefs prepared truly outstanding dishes, at the end it was Chef Yniguez’s grandmother-inspired take on Hoja Santa scramble with chile-chorizo refried beans that prevailed. Still, it was a great platform for Chef Young to showcase his formidable talents.
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: 8 October 2019
1st VISIT: 12 July 2014
# OF VISITS: 6
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, Chicken Tikka, Chicken Chuku Chuku, Marinated Steak Mishkaki, Coffee Masala, Build Your Own Adventure Bowl