Fried pastries stuffed with savory fillings are a common dish in many corners of the world.
From India (where they’re called “samosas”) to Israel (where they’re “sambusaq”) and Turkey (“sambussak”), and from the Horn of Africa to Portuguese (“chamuças”) and English-speaking (“samosa,” “samboosac” or “samoosa”) lands, they’re amazingly versatile.
With different fillings they can play a role in breakfast, lunch, dinner and be a snack or even a dessert. At Flavors of East Africa (2322 El Cajon Boulevard) in North Park, what they are is this: extraordinary.
The triangular-shaped “sambusas” at Flavors of East Africa are offered with six different fillings: spicy beef, chicken, spicy lentil, potato, spinach and cream cheese with coconut and shrimp. The deep-fried pastry surrounding the fillings is surprisingly delicate and light, but it’s the fillings that nonetheless star.
The best of these is the spicy lentil. In this case the “spices” are not so much hot as they are exotic, warming and even intriguing. The chicken sambusas run a close second. The sambusas are served with two dipping sauces: coriander and tamarind chutneys. As good as those sauces are, they’re almost surplus to requirements given the complexity of the sambusas themselves.
Flavors of East Africa bills itself as offering “Kenyan-inspired cuisine.” That influence is definitely there; nowhere more clearly than in sukuma wiki (a classic East African dish of collard greens and cabbage) and wali (a Kenyan take on coconut rice). Another standout is biriganya, hunks of eggplant stewed in an East African-spiced tomato sauce. The depth of flavor of the sauce is intense but it’s the silky, pillowy soft eggplant that somehow manages not to fall apart that is the real magic of the dish.
But the culinary influences at Flavors of East Africa go far beyond Kenya and, for that matter, Africa. What the non-Kenyan dishes share in common is a British colonial heritage. One of the best of these is the decidedly non-Kenyan spicy jerk chicken. The spice level varies somewhat from visit to visit but never veers to the nuclear. The sweet version of the jerk chicken is, frankly, disappointing: go with the spicy. Another disappointment was the chicken curry. It seemed to be all cream, little curry and no spice whatsoever. On two separate trips the dish was a long draught of richness with little contrast and less reward.
One good way to experience the variety of offerings at Flavors of East Africa is the lunch buffets. A variety of the restaurants most popular (though generally less expensive) dishes are arrayed around the northwest corner of the restaurant as an inexpensive, all-you-can-eat setup. On one trip the star of the buffet was a goat soup that isn’t even on the regular menu. The broth was intensely flavored with a hint of spice, but it was the rich, ever-so-slightly flunky flavor of the goat that really made the dish shine.
As good as the lunch buffet is, though, be sure to order some sambusas. It will cost extra but it will be worth it.
Flavors of East Africa, 2322 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park, flavorsofeastafrica.com.