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.
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.
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.
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.
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-
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.