New Cuisine for the New Year
Jambo Café is a delicious new culinary opportunity
Easier than burning effigies of reviled politicians (despite this being a banner year for it), and more filling than eating 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight, I propose something more rewarding than New Year’s resolutions we’ll never keep: eating out! But not just anywhere. I propose finding a place that’s new to you, trying a cuisine that’s unique, and flavors you otherwise wouldn’t encounter. Eating different cuisines pushes us as people, often surprising us with familiar similarities rather than differences. Truth be told, simply breaking bread has probably done more to bridge cultural divides (both real and perceived) than most half-assed attempts at official diplomacy the world over. Jambo Café is excellent in this regard—and pretty damn good all the way around.
Built around a combination of Caribbean and African cuisines and obviously influenced by the French, their airy space in the Northeast Heights is decked out with gorgeous masks, tapestries, carved wooden animals and traditional drums (if you’re lucky, Chef Ahmed Obo may even tap out a few quick beats between meals). Reservations are recommended no matter the time of day—if not completely necessary, it certainly avoids any need for waiting to be seated.
There’s a beer and wine list, and the big tastes to come certainly work well with a cold brew or a snift, but if you’re looking for a change-up, the mango ginger lemonade ($3.95) is a bright, citrus sip that the tingle of fresh ginger balanced against perfectly. It’s infinitely better than a soda, and each taste gets it’s own moment to shine. And while not an especially sophisticated pairing, I went with the harissa-dusted crab cakes ($10.95) which was pricey for an appetizer but didn’t disappoint. The slight heat of harissa in the crisp-fried crust kept the mild crab moist, and the roasted bell pepper and basil sauce was luscious—fine for all but the most timid diners. So tame, in fact, that I ramped up my last couple bites with the Hell Hot pepper sauce sitting on the table … and if you aren’t afraid of some bite, I recommend using it from the jump.
For dinner, the East African coconut lentil stew and roasted butternut squash ($10.95) was a giant plate, full of earthy, tender lentils, punctuated with bits of herbs, the deep-steeped umami of the sauce, made creamy by the coconut milk, with the slightest sweet from the coconut and the sugar in the carrots. No matter what dish you order, take it with the roti. Or just order roti! It’s a big tortilla-like hunk of goodness, similar to Indian naan only thinner, and I think they could do a great selection of roti sandwiches were they so inclined.
The combination plate ($14.95) will get you some of both the chicken coconut curry and Caribbean goat stew. The chicken coconut curry was mild, heartwarming curry, the slight acid of stewed tomatoes all smoothed out by the coconut milk and served over some basmati rice. The goat in the Caribbean stew was a subtle yet sturdy bite with the tiniest bit of smoke. The meat pulled easily off the bone in rich strands (similar to corned beef) and I was surprised by how tame and controlled the flavor was. The rich, savory sauce—while terrific with the rice—was truly made to be sopped up by the roti. They throw in a smaller portion of lentils making a generous platter that is sure to provide enough for two if not three leftover meals, especially if you take some roti to go (I wish I had!).
A more familiar offering, the Kenyan style beef kabobs ($15.95) still deliver some new and inventive tastes. The grassy, herb-marinated chunks of New Mexico beef mix nicely with a smoky-spiced sauce—though, again, those who love heat should add the Hell Hot to really jazz it up. The onion pomegranate chutney atop is a delightful addition, all served on a bed of greens along with some herb garlic saffron pan-roasted potatoes and terrific haricot verts (green beans to you and me).
It’s always a great sign when, by meal’s end, you don’t feel like you’ve even scratched the surface of the menu and are already looking forward to going back. So if you’re looking for a place to toss caution to the wind and try something brand new, Jambo Café uses locally raised and free range meats that are hormone and antibiotic free, and most platters are gluten free. And if it’s intrigue and adventure that brings you in, it’ll be their refined menu that brings you back—turning gamble into tradition.
1105 Juan Tabo Blvd. + a Santa Fe location
Alibi Recommends: Kenyan style beef kabobs and roti with whatever you get!
Vibe: An intoxicating blend of exotic and salt-of-the-earth upscale.