Is­land in the stream

I was so trans­fixed by my jerk chicken sand­wich — the meat so stun­ningly moist and ten­der I could have eas­ily mis­taken it for fish — that for a mo­ment I for­got I was eat­ing my lunch while sit­ting on a side­walk, at a fall fes­ti­val where Jambo’s food truck

Pasatiempo - - RESTAURANT REVIEW - Lau­rel Glad­den

At the risk of sound­ing syco­phan­tic, is there any­thing chef Ahmed Obo can’t do? Back in his home­land of Lamu, an is­land off the coast of Kenya, he fished and sailed and some­times was a tourist guide. After serv­ing as ex­ec­u­tive chef at the dearly de­parted Zia Diner for many years, in 2009 he opened his own res­tau­rant, Jambo Café, and fol­lowed that by launch­ing an im­port shop a few doors down from the res­tau­rant and revving up a food truck that’s reg­u­larly spot­ted at var­i­ous fes­ti­vals and events around town (as well as at Meow Wolf, on oc­ca­sion). He sup­ports a num­ber of lo­cal char­i­ties and par­tic­i­pates in the an­nual Souper Bowl, where he won top hon­ors four years run­ning. He au­thored a re­cently re­leased cook­book that’s also part mem­oir. He’s been spot­ted tak­ing a break in the kitchen at Jambo to play his drum. And he re­ally, re­ally knows how to cook chicken.

Among other things, of course. There’s much more to the menu at Jambo, which spe­cial­izes in African, Caribbean, and even Mediter­ranean dishes. There are dense, sweet plan­tain-crab cakes heavy on the meat and light on the bread­ing, rest­ing on a bed of fresh greens. There’s ten­der, juicy mahi mahi cooked in a ba­nana leaf packet, topped with a tangysweet mango-stud­ded tamarind-co­conut sauce, and served with toothy wild black rice and sautéed bok choy. Do not over­look Obo’s award-win­ning soups — the lively, warm­ing cur­ried black bean and sweet potato is par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable.

But about that chicken. One re­cent af­ter­noon, I was so trans­fixed that for a mo­ment I for­got I was eat­ing my lunch while sit­ting on a side­walk, at a fall fes­ti­val where Jambo’s truck showed up. Bone­less white and dark meat was stuffed into a pil­lowy pock­et­less pita for a jerk chicken sand­wich, and it was so stun­ningly moist and ten­der I could eas­ily have mis­taken it for fish. On an­other even­ing, the meat of the jerk wings fell away from the bone with the first tug of my teeth. In both cases, the thick lac­quer­ing of jerk sea­son­ing had a vi­brant com­plex­ity and a sub­tle heat, mellow at first but build­ing to a no­tice­able whole-mouth-in­volv­ing tin­gle. If the heat’s too much, you can al­ways dunk a cumin-dusted fry (or its sweet-potato cousin) into a creamy dip­ping sauce, ei­ther curry-pineap­ple or harissa-honey. Mango-gin­ger lemon­ade, a del­i­cately fruity Goats Do Roam white wine, or a Tusker lager, im­ported from Kenya, will also do the cool­ing trick.

Jambo’s hearty goat stew has be­come widely rec­og­nized as one of the res­tau­rant’s sig­na­ture dishes. Sea­soned with a Caribbean-in­flu­enced spice blend and cooked long and slow, the meat is rich and gamey but ut­terly ten­der. With its chunky car­rots and pota­toes and a vague, en­chant­ing sweet­ness (thank you all­spice, gin­ger, and cin­na­mon), the whole elixir might re­mind you of the finest beef or ox­tail stew. Yet again, the meat falls off the bones — so be on the look­out for them in your bowl.

The East African co­conut lentil stew will chal­lenge skep­tics’ pre­con­cep­tions of bland, mushy, dully monochro­matic legumes. They’re head­ily aro­matic and sur­pris­ingly rich and filling — you can prob­a­bly chalk that up to co­conut milk. The kitchen knows not to stir lentils too of­ten, which means the tiny earthy-brown pearls stay at­trac­tively whole.

Use the African flat­bread called roti to sop up what re­mains on your plate or in your bowl. Jambo’s is soft and lay­ered, with an al­most but­tery rich­ness — it bears more re­sem­blance to a flat­tened crois­sant than any other flat­bread I’ve had. For the record, if pre­sented with a choice, I’ll pick the roti over the ser­vice­able bas­mati rice ev­ery time.

Jambo’s lo­ca­tion is well off the beaten tourist path, in a strip of shops at the cor­ner of Cer­ril­los Road and St. Michael’s Drive, but peo­ple cer­tainly don’t have trou­ble find­ing it, and pesky con­struc­tion and traf­fic won’t keep them away. The din­ing room is one of the most cheer­ful and brightly col­ored in town, with or­ange walls, twin­kling lights, and a va­ri­ety of eye-catch­ing art and posters. It’s also reg­u­larly packed, even on av­er­age week­nights, so un­less you go early or late, you can ex­pect to wait. Most of the staff mem­bers seem friendly — you might be greeted by a de­mure but pro­fes­sional young woman or a dude in a Stüssy hat who looks like he skate­boarded to work. The en­tire space is filled with an in­tox­i­cat­ing aroma — all­spice, co­rian­der, co­conut, cumin, and what seems like a dozen other ele­ments swirled into a magic ap­petites­tim­u­lat­ing po­tion you’ll be pow­er­less to re­sist. Is Ahmed Obo a Re­nais­sance man or a ma­gi­cian? I’ll leave that to you to de­cide. It’ll be the tasti­est de­ci­sion you make all year.

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