To picture Jambo Cafe back in its earliest days, 10 years ago, all it takes is a little imagination.
See that half-protruding pole on the restaurant’s right side, near the bar? It marks the original depth of the dining room. The curved archway on the left that leads to the other half of the seating space? Picture solid wall instead.
Now, envision a line of eager customers queuing outside this inconspicuous spot near the Office Depot in the College Plaza Shopping Center on Cerrillos Road. It’s 2009, and they’re all waiting to sample chef and owner Ahmed Obo’s East African cuisine inside impossibly tiny dining digs that quickly proved no match for Jambo’s lasting popularity.
“Jambo is not just a normal restaurant,” Obo said. “The way I have created it is, it’s coming home. You’re welcome to eat, to sit and drink, to have chai and a bowl of soup. And the community received it well from the beginning.”
So much so, in fact, that Obo would run into acquaintances and ask them why he hadn’t seen them at the newly opened restaurant. The reason? They couldn’t get a seat.
He deepened his dining area to accommodate more guests almost immediately, then expanded two years later into the former nail salon space next door.
Obo quickly cultivated a loyal following, some of whom had followed him from his decadelong stint as executive chef at Zia Diner. Suzanne LaFlamme and her husband, longtime Santa Feans always on the lookout for new places to dine, were customers “from the start,” she said on a recent weekday just after Jambo had opened for the day.
She’d come that day with a dining companion for lunch, and said she pops in several times a month for lunch or takeout dinner.
“We were shocked at how good it was,” she said of her and her husband’s first visit soon after Jambo’s opening. “He’s a gourmet chef hiding out in a strip mall.”
Other signs of Jambo’s growth over the years take nothing more than a keen eye. On the restaurant’s walls, look for framed newspaper clippings singing the restaurant’s praises and certificates proclaiming the restaurant as the winner in Santa Fe’s annual fundraising cookoff for The Food Depot, the Souper Bowl. Jambo took home the top prize for soup creations including spiced coconut peanut chicken, curried black bean and sweet potato, roasted butternut squash with crab and spiced coconut cream guava-lime.
Then there’s Jambo Imports two doors down, which sells African goods and other items, including The Jambo Cafe Cookbook, published in 2016. And Jambo Hapa, the food truck that pops up at events with a smaller menu of festival-oriented dishes — the chicken curry and lentil stew are crowd favorites. The truck, Obo says, gives him a chance to interact with the community.
And community — both in Santa Fe and in his home of Lamu, a tiny island off the coast of Kenya, is at the heart of Obo’s culinary mission. Proceeds from Jambo Imports and the restaurant along with direct donations help support the nonprofit Jambo Kids Foundation (www.jambokids.org), which funds the low-cost Jambo Kids Clinic he opened in Lamu in 2013. It provides primary care for some 400 people of all ages a month.
On July 20, Jambo will celebrate its 10-year anniversary with a celebration at the Railyard Plaza.
“The celebration is not just for Jambo, it’s for all of us to celebrate,” Obo said. “This is an opportunity for me to bring people together to celebrate what we have created — this thing we all love.”
Fred Simpson, a musician and member of the group Wassa Wassa, which will perform at the celebration and has played shows at Jambo for years, said Obo’s work has made Jambo an indelible part of the city’s culinary landscape.
“He receives people like it’s his house: Come in, sit down, relax, we’ve got your food for you, take your time,” he said. “It just makes you want to come back. It’s a quintessential Santa Fe place — it speaks to people in Santa Fe.”
It’s an unlikely destination for Obo, 47, whose first kitchen experience came from watching his mother cook for his large family (he is the oldest of 11), then learning to dry and grill fish on his father’s sailing vessel. After he arrived in New York in 1995, he began working in restaurants, and once in Santa Fe, he eventually landed at now-closed Zia Diner, where he worked his way up to executive chef and held that position for a decade. He was creating African specials and menus, and wanted a better way to support his family.
When he found the space on Cerrillos Road, he was ready to take the risk.
“It was a scary moment, opening an African restaurant in New Mexico,” he said. “Some people said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But that’s the only way to do it. You have to be thinking crazy to succeed.”
The food along the coastal area of East Africa where Obo grew up reflects a culinary fusion of regions, including India, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. His homeland’s cuisine integrates ingredients such as fish, coconut milk, cayenne, ginger, curry and cardamom.
At Jambo, he blends East African and Caribbean cuisines with Indian and North African flavors, transforming and reimagining traditional dishes. His soups, for example, are not traditionally Swahili, but they are based on masalas, or spice mixtures, that form the essence of Swahili cuisine.
Aside from those award-winning soups, the menu’s most popular dishes remain the goat stew, curry and jerk chicken. Once a local’s secret, over the years Jambo has become a destination for tourists as well, and Obo estimates the dining room draws a 50/50 mix.
Ten years, of course, have brought a few challenges in addition to Jambo’s successes. Obo opened a short-lived Jambo outpost in Albuquerque in 2017, a move that coincided with a freak accident: In March 2017, a woman’s Subaru Forester plowed into the Santa Fe dining room, damaging and temporarily shutting down the restaurant. The Albuquerque outpost closed in January, but Obo said the original restaurant’s future remains as bright as ever.
“I’m very grateful for that success, very humble, that gives me the opportunity to keep me doing what I do and provide a way I can give more,” he said. “This is a family place. My customers feel like they’re coming home, and I feed them with my gift. I feed them with the love that we put in the food.”
IF YOU GO
What: Jambo Cafe
When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Where: 2010 Cerrillos Road, Santa Fe
More information: Call 505-473-1269 or visit jambocafe.net
Jambo will celebrate turning 10 at the Railyard Plaza on Saturday, July 20, with the Jambo Hapa food truck, entertainment, body painting and performances by Natu Camara with Wassa Wassa opening. The event is free, and festivities start at 6 p.m.