During the dry season in Africa, the protective shade of majestic trees casting their cooling shadows are prized–and not only for their impressive and assiduous statures. For generations, the “palaver tree” has served as a meeting place in which the community comes together to discuss issues of common interest, listen to stories and resolve problems and conflicts. Unlike many of the conference room melees…er, meetings of contemporary work life, meetings under the palaver tree are conducted with the utmost of mutual respect and trust. The palaver tree is a symbol of peace and reconciliation, symbolizing the spirit of acceptance and compromise. Much of village life—weddings, rituals and rites, and sharing of news—takes place under the palaver tree.
Among Swahili speaking people, visitors to the palaver tree are greeted with the salutation “karibu” which translates to English as “welcome.” Under the palaver tree, the contribution of each member is welcome, driven by a common search for what is real, true and good. While the concept of the palaver tree may not be alive and well in Albuquerque, you’ll find the welcoming spirit of the palaver tree at a restaurant in the Northeast Heights. Fittingly known as the Karibu Café, it serves the foods of the East African coast where the palaver tree tradition continues today. The Karibu Café is located in the Scottsdale Village Plaza on the northwest corner of the Eubank and Candelaria intersection. Among its neighbors is long-time Korean restaurant favorite Fu Yuang.
When Friends of Gil (FOG) members John and Zelma Baldwin waxed enthusiastic about the Karibu Café, we pictured the Rio Rancho food truck which–from its debut in 2013–attracted hungry diners like flowers draw bees. Indeed, the Karibu Café did have its genesis as a food truck, one of the Duke City area’s most popular mobile kitchen operations. Two years later, founder and owner Lemmy Mamuya opened the brick-and-mortar version of Karibu at the Scottsdale Village. Lemmy, one of the most engaging and enterprising restaurateurs you’ll ever meet, is planning another expansion. He is literally within days of launching a second restaurant, this one within the Westside Marble Brewery.
With two restaurants and a food truck, Lemmy has become a restaurant impresario. The journey from the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro to a burgeoning restaurant empire in Albuquerque was not an easy one nor did it involve matriculation at an accredited culinary school. Growing up in Dar Es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania, Lemmy was exposed to a wide variety of cuisine from the city’s many cultures. He learned to cook from various family members, and honed his culinary skills through exposure to different types of food. Though he demonstrated a high aptitude for cooking, Lemmy’s academic prowess dictated a different path, one that would eventually bring him to New Mexico.
The path first taken was the pursuit of a degree in Construction Engineering from Iowa State University. Upon degree completion, he was offered jobs in Kansas City, St. Louis and Albuquerque. Not fond of Midwestern weather, Lemmy opted for the Duke City offer where he built a very successful career and started a family. Though a prosperous future in engineering was all but assured, his true passion was in cooking. Utilizing his engineering skills, he essentially built his own food truck, personally performing all the electrical wiring, plumbing and mechanical tasks needed to launch Karibu. It didn’t take long for his cooking to win over the hearts and appetites of Duke City diners.
It’s been said that a chef’s work is never done. A typical day for Lemmy involves significant prep work, meticulously grinding and precisely measuring the spices which give his food their incomparable flavor profile. On the days in which the food truck has a scheduled gig, the prep work begins even earlier in the morning to ensure the truck is fully provisioned with all it needs to serve hungry diners. As with many home cooks in Tanzania, you won’t find recipes for Lemmy’s dishes on any cookbook. While the food he prepares may share a name and similar preparation style with other Tanzanian dishes, it’s all prepared to his exacting specifications—in his inimitable style. Lemmy is a perfectionist with exceedingly high standards.
Signage in front of the Karibu Café is subtitled with “E. African & Caribbean Cuisine,” a description which falls short in describing the variety and deliciousness of a vibrant cuisine. As with many ancient culinary cultures, the cuisine of East Africa draws upon diverse ethnic traditions merged with seasonings and techniques of other countries, including India. Knowing this, you might not do a double-take when you see chapatti and samosas on Karibu’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 in Kenya and Tanzania. 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.
Caribbean influences on Karibu’s menu can be attributed to the nefarious slave trade of the Americas when ingredients indigenous to the Caribbean were transported back to East Africa. The most obvious ingredient adaptation is the use of piquant chiles which were introduced to East 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. The low heat allows the meat to cook slowly, retaining its natural juices which are infused with the flavor of spices and wood.
12 March 2016: There are two Caribbean inspired items on the appetizer menu: grilled jerk chicken wings and Jamaican jerk hummus served with pita bread. Only at the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant have we enjoyed hummus as much as we did at Karibu and the hummus at both restaurants could not have been any more different. At the former, the prevailing flavor of the hummus is garlic infused with a tinge of lemon juice. At Karibu, the hummus has a pronounced heat level courtesy of jerk spices. Spanish paprika is liberally sprinkled atop the two scoops of the hummus, lending a bittersweet, medium piquancy element. This hummus is not for the faint-of-heart though it has such an explosive flavor profile that even the wimp-tongued among us will enjoy it.
12 March 2016: Over the years we’ve enjoyed samosas at Indian, Nepalese and Kenyan restaurants, but have found none better than the samosas at Karibu. If you’ve never had a samosa, you owe it to yourself to experience this simple, but wonderful treat. Samosas are akin to Greek spanakopita in that they’re deep-fried triangular-shaped pastries. That’s where the similarities end. The interior of samosas is stuffed with beef, chicken or vegetables all flavored with fresh ground spices and fried in vegetable oil. Served two per order, they’re addictively delicious on their own, but are made even more magnificent when dipped or dunked into Lemmy’s unique barbecue sauce, a sweet-piquant elixir which should be bottled and sold.
12 March 2016: Perhaps because we’re weaned on red and green chile, New Mexicans tend to be a hearty breed. When we visit a restaurant purporting to serve cuisine with a piquant bent, we tend to order it if only to measure its heat against the chile which practically flows in our veins. As with our beloved New Mexican cuisine, the secret to preparing incendiary cuisine is in using piquant peppers to boost flavors, not to kill taste buds. Karibu’s spicy Jamaican Pork Curry (slow-cooked pork with green peas, carrots, tomatoes, coconut milk and hot spices to make a thick curry sauce) straddles that fine line between too hot and just right, leaning more toward the latter. New Mexicans will find this curry dish has the perfect amount of heat which allows flavors to shine brightly. With every bite of this fabulous curry, you may just curse the relative blandness of American stews. Not only are Lemmy’s stews more flavorful, he refuses to compromise by using flour or corn starch to thicken them (shame on New Mexican restaurants who use thickeners on their chile).
12 March 2016: With Indian food as well as East African cuisine, spicy does not necessarily mean hot. A dish may be super spicy as in redolent with intensely flavored spices without having much of a bite. Pilau Beef Masala Stew is such a dish. It’s a spice haven, loaded with a combination of spices that please different sections of the palate. In addition to a myriad of flavors, Karibu’s rendition of this stew has a plentitude of beef. That’s a commonality of all meat-based dishes at Karibu. Lemmy hand-trims every cut of meat to ensure an optimum blend of protein and fat for maximum flavor. Maximum flavor well defines the Pilau stew, a dish my Kim likened to pure deliciousness. The Pilau stew is served with an East African ground-spice jasmine rice so flavorful, it would make a great meal on its own.
12 March 2016: You’ll want to ensure you have plenty of chapatti on hand, either to enjoy on its own or as a scooping/dipping appliance for the wonderful entrees on the menu. Chapatti, a type of Indian whole wheat bread is to East Africa what flour tortillas are to New Mexicans. They’re an essential part of the dining experience. The chapatti at Karibu inherit the flavor of the exposed flame over which they’re prepared. They’re relatively thin (similar to naan, another Indian bread), but are formidable enough for picking up larger pieces of food and scooping up foods of a more liquid consistency (can you say curry).
15 March 2016: Lemmy’s artistry with sandwiches is on full display with Karibu’s jerk chicken sandwich, a beauteous behemoth constructed on fresh brioche bread. Nestled between the bread are generous pieces of moist breast and thigh meat from freshly pulled chicken. The breast meat is more flavorful while the thigh meat is more moist. The chicken is marinated for 24 hours in a Jamaican jerk-bbq sauce which impregnates it with a spicy deliciousness. The menu describes this sandwich as “spicy” and it is indeed spicy without being overly piquant. All too many jerk chefs tend to overemphasize the piquant elements on jerk spices at the detriment of flavor. Not so with Lemmy who constructed one of the best jerk chicken sandwiches I’ve ever enjoyed. The sandwich is served with a mound of nicely salted freshly cut French fries.
In 2009 when Jambo opened its doors in Santa Fe, the Land of Enchantment became just a bit moreso. Jambo, the restaurant to which Karibu seems most often compared, has garnered significant acclaim, even an appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Cognoscenti consider Jambo one of New Mexico’s best restaurants of any genre. Perhaps because of the enthusiasm with which Jambo has been received, New Mexico has experienced an influx of outstanding African restaurants. The fabulous Talking Drums opened its doors in 2012, introducing Duke City diners to the cuisine of West Africa. The short-lived Rafiki followed suit in 2013, shortly before Karibu rolled onto Albuquerque’s hungry streets. One common element each African restaurant has shared is a welcoming attitude to which New Mexicans have responded in kind.
When John and Zelma raved about the Karibu Cafe, we should have rushed over at our next opportunity. As eloquent and inviting as their descriptions of the fabulous East African cuisine were, they fell short. So does this review…by far. You’ve got to try this terrific restaurant to truly understand just how good East African and Caribbean cuisine can be.
3107 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 16 March 2016
1st VISIT: 12 March 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Pilau Beef Masala Stew, Spicy Jamaican Pork Curry, Beef Samosas, Chapati, Jamaican Jerk Hummus, Jerk Chicken Sandwich