Ahmed Obo, the owner/chef at Jambo Café in Santa Fe, was born on the island of Lamu off the coast of Kenya. There, he grew up among the culinary traditions of Africa, Arabia and India. The food at Jambo reflects the Lamu style of culinary fusion. It’s designed to be interesting and different but doesn’t attempt to force anyone too far from their comfort zone. The ingredients, including a host of local meats and veggies, is priced unusually low for a restaurant dealing in clean, local food.
The small strip mall joint on Cerrillos is usually packed. An open kitchen, international feel and the din of other well-satisfied diners make it a cozy spot. Many eavesdropped conversations around the room share a common theme: people talking about when and how they discovered this special place and how often they return.
There are many highlights from my visit, but the brightest has to be the goat stew. I’ll definitely be back for that. It had that intense, goaty flavor that either turns people off or draws them in. Though not as strong as other goat stews, there was enough gaminess to let me know, without question, which animal I was eating. The meat was soft, with satisfying chunks of fat attached, and the broth was thick with the buttery richness of melted cartilage.
Also outstanding was a marinated and grilled tilapia. It’s no surprise that an islander knows how to cook fish. This filet, served with red chile-and-coconut-infused basmati rice, sautéed spinach, and a dried-fruit-and-ginger chutney, had a delicious feeling of ease to it.
Many eavesdropped conversations around the room share a common theme: people talking about when and how they discovered this special place and how often they return.
The East African lentils were enticing as well, and not only because of the spicy coconut sauce they’d been cooked in. There is a certain allure to exotic dishes—like the goat stew—that can only come when they’re prepared with ingredients from the chef’s home.
Vegetarians and vegetable lovers are accommodated in many ways, from goat-cheese-laden salads to bowlfuls of garlicky sautéed spinach. Sides include flavorful grain dishes like couscous and roti. There are also some delicious veggie appetizers—namely, the cinnamon-fried plantains with pineapple-curry dipping sauce.
Jamaican-style jerk chicken, made with Talus Wind Ranch birds, was smoky and complexly spiced. The meat was softer than what I expect from high-quality, free-range chicken—all that running around tends to toughen up their muscles fibers—though much more flavorful. It’s a testament to the gentle power of slow marination and good cooking technique.
One dish that wasn’t as well received at our table was the Moroccan lamb stew. I wanted to love the chunks of New Mexican lamb cooked with raisins, sweet potatoes and chickpeas. But it was too sweet and not spicy enough. My feeling was that this dish made too much of an attempt to accommodate New Mexican palates, and it paid the price of squandered authenticity. It was just a bit too fruity. Cumin fries were another identity-crisis-afflicted dish. Still, a dash from one of the myriad habanero-based hot sauce bottles there was enough to bring most wayward dishes back on track.
The few duds on the menu were easily eclipsed by all the winners—delicious surprises that make you want to try every single item from that kitchen just to see what happens. It’s hard not to enjoy the time you spend at Jambo Café, a housemade mango-ginger lemonade in hand, especially when you factor in the price you’re paying for these delicacies. And whatever you do, try to save room for the rum-pecan pie.