Jambo! Kitchen, the new restaurant in Cedar-Riverside’s African Development Center, is out to replicate the success of its predecessor, Afro-Deli, which moved to the East Bank of the University of Minnesota.
Chef Jamal Hashi’s “fast casual” menu draws inspiration from East Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and features rice bowls, tacos, and sandwiches. But the crown jewel? Bold and beautiful bisbaas sauce. Featuring garlic and peppers (jalapeño, we believe), the fiery Somali condiment burned our innards and won our hearts.
Our first date with bisbaas was unexpected. Unfamiliar with the sauce offerings for a lamb rice bowl ($8, below), we simply selected the one with the coolest sounding name. The bowl didn’t need a condiment — gyro-like lamb, yellow-tinted “African rice,” and small pieces of fresh pineapple were a well-balanced flavorful combo — but the bisbaas is what landed the lamb bowl at the top of the Heavy Table’s weekly Hot Five list. It was a revelation, like the first time we spooned a dollop of chimichurri onto a juicy hanger steak.
Working our way through the menu, bisbaas remained our faithful sidekick. For instance, the sandwiches we tried lacked chutzpah, but bisbaas added some much-needed attitude. Without it, The Haji ($7, below) — ground beef, fresh vegetables, and a Thousand-Island-style dressing on a sturdy roll — was satisfying but not attention grabbing, and its accompanying fresh-cut fries literally fell down on the job.
Even Chef Hashi’s best-known dish, Sahel Sliders ($8, below), didn’t win us over. Lean, ground camel patties weren’t particularly flavorful, but were too chewy for our tastes. A dense pretzel bun accentuated the unfortunate texture. Happily, some sweet pickles and, of course, a slathering of the lovely, light-green bisbaas sauce provided character.
Only one main dish didn’t beg for bisbaas — the Manchurian taco ($5, below). A refreshingly creative vegetarian option, the taco features a wonderful paratha bread “tortilla” filled with cauliflower florets. But the concoction is too rich, and big flavors fight each other. The coating on the “Manchurian” cauliflower and a lather of Thousand Island-ish sauce smothered fresh celery, carrot, and cabbage, and gave the taco an unpleasant level of sweetness. Bisbass would only have added to the chaos.
We were slightly more disposed to a Vegetarian Sambusa ($2). We again admired the shell, which was light and had a nice crackle, like a wonton. The stuffing, however, was ho-hum, bringing to mind the frozen “mixed vegetables” we pushed aside as kids.
Taken together, the food at Jambo! Kitchen is decidedly uneven — not unusual for such a young restaurant. But if Chef Hashi successfully recalibrates some of his promising dishes and keeps the bisbaas flowing, Jambo! may very well rival the success of its predecessor.
Fast casual African in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis
1939 5th St S
Minneapolis, MN 55455
GENERAL MANAGER / CHEF: Mahad Ibrahim / Jamal Hashi
Mon-Sat 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $5-$8
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate