Jambo’s crunchy coconut shrimp with zippy lime-mango sauce

Palates-A-Poppin’

by John Vollertsen

October/November 2010

Of all the senses stimulated during a meal, the most important is taste. Sure, food should look yummy and smell delicious and feel good. But, boy oh boy, if those taste buds jump up and the flavors sing and zing—bingo—that is the artistry of a chef who knows what he’s doing.

That’s also the experience on offer at the year-old Jambo Cafe. Chef/owner Ahmed Obo, who grew up on the island of Lamu, off the coast of Kenya, certainly understands the power of seasoning; it’s in his African heritage. But his many years of cooking in American restaurants, including stints in New York City and locally at Atalaya and a 10-year residency at the Zia Diner, allow him to introduce those mysterious spices into a menu that dabbles in Moroccan, Caribbean, and Mediterranean. Call it world cuisine with a punch.

The hot summer night we dined on Obo’s edible wonders became a steamy one. A massive downpour and the resulting humidity allowed us to pretend we were dining on an exotic East African or Caribbean beach. The menu furthered the theme with touches of mango, coconut, plantains, pomegranates, ginger, curry, and saffron, all of which spiced up the evening’s offerings. It’s a fun menu for foodie friends to sample; sharing dishes is a must.

The crowd is an eclectic one. Young hipsters dine next to older, established Santa Feans, which surprised me. I would have thought that senior patrons would find the menu too fiery. But although Obo provides heat, your relatives from Boston can still enjoy it.

Set into an unassuming strip mall on Cerrillos Road, the cozy café has a relaxed, casual feel but gets bustling when it’s full, which is often. The turmeric-colored walls hold African paintings and photos of native peoples. The air is fragrant with heady spices. Half a dozen stools along a counter are perfect for single dining or for those who like to peek into the kitchen to see what the clever cooks are up to. The atmosphere is friendly and convivial. I noticed a few presumably single women giving the handsome and swarthy chef an extra hug on arriving (and leaving).

We start off with the island spice coconut peanut soup. It took first place at the annual Santa Fe Food Depot Souper Bowl this year, and with good reason. It’s equal parts sweet, salty, spicy, and scrumptious.

A delicate parcel of phyllo stuffed with spinach, olives, feta, chickpeas, and roasted red peppers is given a pomegranate-molasses drizzle, which gives the Greekish dish a tasty atoll twist. The cinnamon-dusted fried plantains are absolutely addictive; order two servings if you have kids with you, as we did. The coconut shrimp has a nice crunch; the zippy lime-mango sauce is a tart complement to the sweet coconut.

The balance of fire and spice on the Jamaican chicken wings made them the favorite of the table. They’re so tender you can’t help but suck the bones free of all the meat—truly finger lickin’ good!

Main courses include rich African curries and Moroccan stews, as well as grilled kebabs, fish, and more jerk chicken. The goat stew is an acquired taste. Those who love its gaminess order it again and again—try it if you’re game! A sweet and savory lamb stew was fork tender, with the addition of chickpeas, raisins, and sweet potatoes elevating it from stew to stupendous.

Even the accompanying side dishes were unusual: coconut basmati rice, curried couscous, coconut lentils, saffron new potatoes. The à la carte sides offer a veritable carb-fest: sweet potato fries with a curry dip, cumin-scented fries, rice and beans, roti (African flat bread), and juju and ugali— two traditional native starch dishes that serve as perfect complements to the smorgasbord of curries.

Vegetarians have lots of options, including a well-seasoned hummus plate, a roasted vegetable salad, an East African lentil stew, a stuffed pita veggie sandwich (with organic feta), and of course all those lovely carbs.

Ice-cold beer from the short but interesting beverage list goes well with all these flavors (try the Jamaican Red Stripe with the jerk chicken), but my crisp Parducci sustainable white, a zesty blend of sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, and viognier varietals, was a refreshing palate cleanser. There are super-tasty house-made tropical fruit drinks, which the kids enjoyed, as well as a bracing hibiscus iced tea.

Desserts feature intensely flavored locally made ice creams and sorbets, as well as a knockout baklava, rummy rice pudding, and mango cobbler. The coconut lime sorbet and the dark chocolate gelato with a hint of cinnamon provided the perfect ending to a perfectly delicious edible trip to the islands of the Caribbean and across the pond to Africa.

Jambo Café, 2010 Cerrillos, 505-473-1269

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