Mambo Kabob House is a mysterious place. The doughnut shop turned African restaurant never shakes off a sort of afternoon-in-the-tropics languor. It's more dimly lit than most restaurants, more relaxed, and a little less populated, though during the course of a meal a number of other customers pass through. The menu isn't large, but the cooks always seem to be out of one or two dishes, and you won't know which ones those are until you ask for them.
But the most enigmatic thing about Mambo Kabob House is the silver obelisk-shaped panels staked around the perimeter of its property, with white Christmas lights and cords strung across their tops. Four of the panels are covered in precise drawings of rocket ships and satellites delicately inked out in permanent marker. One of the panels reproduces the etchings on the copper record sent out on Voyager II.
I've eaten at the six-month-old place three times, and its mystery hasn't yet dissipated. Mambo Kabob House seems to specialize in West African food, but clearly takes some liberties with tradition. I've eaten really good food as well as some puzzlingly bland stuff, and still have yet to figure out whether the "bar-B-Q" on the menu refers to African or American grilled meat. But, I confess, I'm a little enchanted by the place.
It's mainly due to the manager Zelalem Bereded and her sister, who waits tables. And to their matching smiles, which are so broad and so genuine that when the two greet you at once it's enough to make you feel a little lightheaded.
They run the restaurant for Florent Missomba, who comes from Douala, Cameroon, by way of Paris. He and Bereded have done a good job of erasing the doughnut-shop banality of the room, painting the walls in bright colors and letting the wide windows in front do the rest. They leave a few clues to their mix of heritages in the decor: the full set of Budweiser "Great Kings of Africa" tableaux on one wall, pictures with Amharic script on another, and a great drinks poster reading "Fou de Soif" ("crazy with thirst") tacked up next to the cash register. A back room is still under construction -- on weekdays, buzzing and hammering sounds emerge from it -- and the patio out front, set with metal tables, will be a good place to hang out come spring. Until then, you can wallow in sunlight while lounging on the banquette seats that flank the windows.
The restaurant's menu fits on a brochure-sized card, front and back: a few stews and grilled entrées, some of which are translated into the vegetarian, along with a few sides; five kinds of kebabs; and the aforementioned BBQ with mashed potatoes on the side. The drinks case is stocked with waters and the standard sodas, and the sisters will make a fresh pot of coffee if you ask.
The kebabs, gratifyingly, are both cheap and tasty. All are rubbed with oil and spices, and even though you can't spot red flecks of chiles in the marinade, they're there all right. The meat kebabs stay juicy, and while the vegetable kebabs -- eggplant, cauliflower, peppers, onions, and plantains, my favorite part -- could use a little more flame time, they're almost as flavorful. Each of the kebab plates comes with a mound of white rice or couscous and a heap of sautéed cabbage, carrots, and cauliflower.
A couple of the dishes weren't as enticing as their descriptions. For the chicken (or lamb or tofu) mambo, the cooks braise lean chunks of chicken with cabbage and carrots in a pale, creamy sauce made of pureed split lentils. Chicken, carrots, and cabbage melt together, the vegetables infusing a little sweetness into the bland sauce. "Chicken à la king," the guy who ordered it pronounced. Spot on. Other African restaurants' chicken ndole have been nutty, spicy stews of meat, greens, and ground peanuts. You can see the cooks whizzing Mambo Kabob's ndole in a blender just before they serve it to you, and they must start the order from scratch: Its color is the bright emerald of just-cooked spinach, not the almost-black shade of greens that have cooked down in a pot for hours. After the burn of the cayenne wears off, you realize the underlying flavor isn't fully developed. A couple of hours in the pot aren't a bad thing.
However, a yellow curry of eggplant, potatoes, and cauliflower is straightforwardly flavorful, and the gingery, sweet-tart sauce on the lamb maboute is positively punchy. If you crave even more of a kick, ask for some hot sauce -- this roast-chile puree goes down in flames.
Priced in the two-to-three-dollar range, the restaurant's sides are worth ordering. Mambo Kabob House deep-fries plantain slices just until the edges crisp up. They don't melt into a gloriously sticky caramel, but every plate went back to the kitchen empty. The nutty sautéed spinach, slices of red bell pepper poking through its dark green leaves like bows on a Christmas tree, is one of the restaurant's best dishes.
Another one is the grilled tilapia, a big-headed freshwater fish served whole, its flesh mahogany from the marinade and the fire. When you poke through the sautéed onions and red peppers that cover the fish and begin to dig into the flesh, it pulls away from the bones in tender chunks, the mild flesh softening the impact of the fiery, vinegar-sparked glaze brushed onto the skin.
According to Missomba, the food at Mambo Kabob House is in fact Cameroonian, at least, with Ethiopian spices. No word on the spaceships, though. Some mysteries are best left unsolved.
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