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
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.