Friday, February 24, 2012

Anaheim’s Kenyan Café can be a mouthful



What makes Kenyan Café and Cuisine an experience isn’t just sampling food from another part of the world, but figuring out how to pronounce it.

Dishes are labeled in Swahili, with the exception of the Obama Meal, a fried fresh-water fish that was the president’s favorite meal when he visited Kenya. Fortunately, a glossary on the back of the menu serves as a cheat sheet and cultural guide. For instance, sukuma wiki is collard greens and means “stretch the week” to maximize food resources.
Despite the unknown names, many of the ingredients turned out to be familiar, although prepared with Kenyan curries and hard-to-identify spices. The servers are friendly and happy to answer questions and offer recommendations. But when we asked about certain seasonings, the Swahili names didn’t help much.
None of us had tried Kenyan food (the restaurant describes itself as the only such establishment in Southern California), and we were curious as we made our way to the tiny restaurant in the back of a tired-looking west Anaheim strip mall. While a flier for the restaurant displays an elephant grazing in a savannah glowing in the sunset, the actual décor does little to create a safari theme. The walls are painted a simple mint green, a TV is tuned to sports and a few faux-bamboo frames contain elephant prints that were probably mass-produced in China. My friend remarked that it would have been interesting to see masks or baskets or tableware that would convey more of a sense of place.

We started with bottles of Tusker beer ($4.50), imported from Nairobi. The label on the pale lager tells the story of how in 1923, the brewery founder was killed by an elephant during a hunting accident. Two orders of samosas ($3.50) made an excellent first impression. They were stuffed in light, crisp pastry dough and packed powerful flavor. A simmering heat bloomed with each bite. The lentil version almost looked like green peas, while the beef resembled a spicy taco mix with bits of red pepper.
For entrees, we tried an order of goat stew ($14.50) and ugali with collard greens ($8.50).
The stew came on a plate, with a spiced, speckled sauce drenching the large chunks of meat. The generous portion came with a choice of sides, including cooked cabbage and chapati, a wheat flatbread.

The goat was tender without a trace of gaminess. The sides were both standouts. The curry-sprinkled cabbage was both sweet and astringent, and warm yet crisp. The chapati, used to mop up the sauce, was warm and nicely baked.
The collard greens were served with diced, cooked onion, and while flavorful and fresh, on their own they were a bit much for an entire entrée. The greens came with a mound of white cornmeal mush that is an African staple. The ugali tasted starchy like white rice but was as dense as a packed cup of brown sugar. It paired much better when coated in the sauce of the goat stew, which gave it flavor while softening its texture.
I sat facing the front door and noticed a homeless man sleeping across the way next to an industrial building. When the check came, I had a flashback to out-of-the-way international travel experiences where eating in a restaurant is more like dining informally in a home. The check was not itemized and was handwritten on a scrap of paper. Still, I could pay with a credit card.
Coming back for lunch, we tried free-range chicken ($11.50) and the vegetarian combo dish ($9.50). The chicken breast was charred and well prepared, although a bit salty. It came with big chunks of tomato, onion and cilantro. It was tasty and filling.
The veggie combo was built around a sun-like yellow scoop of curry-infused rice, surrounded by collard greens, cabbage, lentils and a whole bean and corn dish. I started with individual bites, noting the crisp freshness of the warm vegetables and the tender legumes. Soon, I found that swirling the tastes and textures together brought out the best in each. I really enjoyed the quality of ingredients and the variety of each element.
On both visits, we had to ask for beverage refills. In fairness, during lunch one employee was dividing his time between the kitchen and the dining area. The restaurant opened three years ago, but it has been under new management for the past year. Kenyan Café has been offering a number of discount offers on Yelp and coupon websites.
If you’re up for a new experience, Kenyan Café is worth a try.

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