April 6 2013 12:48 PM

Come to University Heights for the laid-back atmosphere, but stay for the sambusas

Chicken curry with collard greens and chapati flatbread
Photo by Mina Riazi

There are few foods more delectable than sambusas. Perhaps it's because the pudgy, pyramid-shaped pastries elicit the kind of anticipation and excitement you feel when opening a present. After all, a sambusa's fried-dough shell keeps the filling a complete mystery. Or maybe it's that the chunky delights are crusty on the outside and crumbly soft on the inside; the contrast of textures alone is a swift heart-stealer.

Nevertheless, my grub buddy didn't understand why I needed to kick off our meal at Flavors of East Africa (2322 El Cajon Blvd.) with a plateful of them. With its sunny tunes, cushy booths and checkerboard floors, the University Heights eatery feels snug and inviting. The 3D wall art tacks an extra layer of texture to the eventful décor. 

When the sambusas arrived, Toma, our server, pointed out the two dipping sauces: a brightgreen mint concoction and a muddy-red tamarind nectar. Lightly golden, the sambusas resembled little gems with their slight shine and perfect, triangular shape.

All too often, sambusas suffer from grim dough-to-filling ratios. The patties are either overstuffed—resulting in unpleasant midbite spills—or excessively cakey, with the filling a sad afterthought. At Flavors of East Africa, however, they flaunted crunchy, crackly skins that held everything together with ease. The starchy potato was my favorite of the bunch—especially when used to soak up the extra tamarind sauce. Spicy lentil, spicy beef, chicken, spinach and a sweet version packed with cream cheese, pineapple and coconut flakes completed the sampler of six.

Thick-cut fries came next, coated in a rich masala tomato sauce. These, too, were lip-smacking good, the sauce gently sweet and the spuds nice and tender with crisp, sticky edges. Toma guided us through the rest of the menu, sharing slivers of East   African history while we expressed our enthusiasm for roasted goat meat.

The Kenyan-inspired menu at Flavors of East Africa includes meat-focused specialties like Mbuzi Choma, or roasted goat meat, lamb curry and oxtail. But there are also vegetarian and vegan standouts like Dengu, a lentil curry cooked in coconut milk, and Nyoyo, a hearty blend of Hominy, kidney beans, potatoes and carrots.

I finally decided on the chicken curry, which comes with one choice of a vegetable side and one of a staple. Toma advised me to try the collard greens and the chapati, an African flatbread. My dish arrived minutes later, capped by a creamy swirl of steam. Soon after, Toma slid my friend's plate of roasted goat meat onto the table. 

Seasoned with traditional African spices, my chicken curry was robust and flavorful. The chapati was its perfect carby  ompanion, as the stretchy, plain-tasting flatbread balanced out the curry's more intricate flavors. Cut into thick, curvy strips, the goat meat was both crunchy and tender, creating an addictive blend of textures. The meat's strong, gamy taste paired well with the ugali, a steamed white-corn-flour mash.

On our way out, we waved goodbye to Toma and promised to be back again soon. The sambusas, after all, would be waiting. 


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