WALKING INTO JAMBO CAFÉ, off busy Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe, feels like coming home. From the warm greetings to the chatter of happy diners and the clatter of cutlery on plates piled high with colorful, fragrant food, a festive vibe imbues this beloved restaurant.
The homestyle dishes are refreshingly different, a blend of Caribbean, Indian, East African, and North African flavors. “It’s food that you eat every day, that you’ve been eating all your life, but at Jambo, that food has a twist,” says owner and executive chef Ahmed Obo. “The meat could be the same meat that you eat all the time, anywhere, but I do my twist with the flavor of the spices.”
Obo opened Jambo Café in 2009. Tucked into a strip mall, it quickly became a Santa Fe mainstay. Last year, Obo was named a James Beard Award semifinalist for best chef in the Southwest. “It’s a unique place,” he says. “The people who come here have traveled to different parts of the world. They like world cuisine, which is Jambo.”
Now Obo’s world cuisine is traveling in a new direction. He recently purchased the iconic Bobcat Bite, near Eldorado, where he plans to open a second eatery, Jambo Bobcat Bite. “My vision is to have a relaxing place with a beautiful patio, the outdoors, the view, a place to chill in the summer, where families and kids will hang out,” he says. “And I have the opportunity to make a green chile cheeseburger with Jambo spices.”
The eldest of 11 children, Obo grew up on Lamu, an island in the Indian Ocean off Kenya’s northern coast, entranced by the foods that his mother, Halima, prepared. Perched on a stool in the kitchen, he would watch her work magic, creating aromatic curries and stews, sauces, and savory coconut cornmeal bread to feed their large family. He often fetched spices from the marketplace.
“She’d give me the money and say, ‘Go get coriander, curry powder, turmeric, ginger,’ ” he says. “Then they’d put the spices in brown paper or newspaper and roll it up—that’s how they’d pack it.”
The fragrant recipes that nurtured the Obo family were influenced by the cuisines of India, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Africa, all part of the multicultural fabric of vibrant Lamu. These extraordinary flavors have dazzled Jambo Café diners for nearly 15 years. Dishes such as coconut chicken curry—simmered with ginger, cumin, coriander, and other spices to the bright color of sunshine—warm the heart and lift the spirit. Caribbean Goat Stew is surprisingly popular, the meat slowly cooked to tender perfection in a curry sauce with carrots and potatoes. “People love their curry, lentils, and goat,” says Obo, who also serves seafood, a staple of island life. Island-spiced mahi-mahi wrapped in banana leaves and draped with a sauce of mango, tamarind, and coconut is another favorite.
Obo has traveled great distances in his life, the first time from Lamu to America at age 22, in 1995. He worked in numerous kitchens, including that of the acclaimed Fish Cellar, in Mount Kisco, north of New York City. He spent 10 years as executive chef at Santa Fe’s Zia Diner, joyfully introducing customers to Caribbean and African cuisine.
“After all the time I spent working at different restaurants and eating at different restaurants, seeing the spaces, I started to think I could open a small place—a humble, homey kind of a place,” he says.
In the way that an artist mixes paints, Obo alchemizes spices, herbs, and other ingredients to create his tantalizing dishes. “I use as many flavors as I can, but you have to know how to balance,” he says. “Every morning when I come in and want to make a special, I have to pick a starch, a protein, a vegetable, and a sauce. The same way as when you’re painting, you want to combine the colors. You have to know your theme—do you want to go to the Caribbean, do you want to go to Africa, do you want to go to the Mediterranean?”
Obo’s artistry in the kitchen has garnered him many awards, including multiple Best Soup trophies at the Santa Fe Souper Bowl, the Food Depot’s annual fundraiser. In Jan-uary, he was featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network—a repeat appearance.
Obo is strongly committed to community, often participating in charity events. His Jambo Kids Foundation funds the Jambo Kids Clinic he opened in Lamu to provide primary healthcare for children and families. “Every month we’re sending money to the clinic,” he says. “That money is coming from the restaurant. When you’re dining at Jambo, you’re supporting the clinic.” You’re also giving new meaning to the definition of “world cuisine.”
Ahmed Obo shares these recipes from The Jambo Café Cookbook: Recipes and Remembrances of My Journey from Africa to America, which is sold at his restaurant.
After leaving Africa, Ahmed Obo found that curry-based dishes nurtured memories of home. “That’s the spice that I came to America with, in my head, in my memory,” says the Jambo Café chef. “When I had people over, I would cook chicken curry.”
This perennial favorite dances with flavor after the meat marinates for hours in the deliciously fragrant spices and herbs that Jambo Café chef Ahmed Obo grew up savoring on the island of Lamu.