Eat Zawadi brings traditional African cuisine to the Four Corners

by Nick Gonzales

If you, like us, are elated whenever a new restaurant opens — especially one specializing in a type of food that’s hard to come by in the Four Corners — we have good news. Eat Zawadi, specializing in traditional African cuisine, has opened in Durango.

Chef Arnold Ngumbao, aka Chef Safari, has been a staple of the Durango food scene for a while now. He originally came to the city as a guest chef at the Strater Hotel’s Mahogany Grille while working as the chef at a five-star resort in Zanzibar, Tanzania. In 2013, he took over as the executive chef of the hotel and has since also done stints at the DoubleTree Hotel and Manna’s culinary arts program.

According to the Eat Zawadi Facebook page, Safari began working on Zawadi with Grant Andrew, the current owner of the Smiley Cafe, in February, right before you-know-what happened. But now it’s open at both the Smiley Cafe on East Third Avenue and a location in College Plaza on East Eighth Avenue, depending on what meal you’re looking for. It’s open at Smiley for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and for dinner on East Eighth Avenue from 4 to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

As soon as we found out about the African eatery’s existence, we had to try it and ordered a three-course dinner. Safari says the food is “Good Crazy,” and “zawadi” is the Swahili word for “gift.” So we gifted ourselves with some food to-go. (It’s all to-go at the dinner location.)

For an appetizer, we chose the beef samosas, which are packed with, well … beef, with a hint of spice, wrapped in a perfectly-fried pastry shell. The mango chutney, for dipping, was also excellent, with its own set of interesting flavors and sizable chunks of mango in the mix.

For an entrée, we chose the Spicy Moroccan Lamb, which the menu says is cooked in a ten-spice curry sauce. They weren’t kidding. While it all tasted fantastic — the meat was among the best lamb we’ve had in Durango — there were quite a lot of flavors to unpack. In one bite, one of the licorice-tasting herbs (fennel maybe?) really jumped out in a surprising and wonderful way. But it wasn’t quite so noticeable in the rest of the curry. Above all else, though, what set the curry apart from others we’ve had around here was its fruitiness. Alongside the obvious savoriness was a strong coconut and raisin aura that ensured the core of the dish disappeared very fast.

The sides, couscous and sautéed greens, didn’t last much longer than the lamb curry.

The thing that stood out about the couscous were the cashews and yellow raisins, which added a savory and fruity aspect to the steamed semolina, even when it was eaten in separate forkfuls from the rest of the meal.

The collard greens, sautéed in what we’re guessing was butter, based on the flavor, with a little bit of onion, also complemented the entrée. The ever-so-slightly bitter vegetable taste balanced out the rest of the dish.

Even the dessert, Papaya Coconut Treasure — chilled, fresh papaya braised in coconut milk, with fresh ginger and lemon – was loaded with spices. A bite of the papaya itself, with the coconut milk, bursts into action with a sweet, fruity flavor that gives way to a more complex character that spreads across the palate, activating all sorts of receptors. As they all fade away, a pleasant ginger-based burn lasts on the tongue. For such a simple-looking fruit dish, it’s quite something.

There’s a 100% chance we’ll be going back for more in the very near future, and we’re excited for this new thread on Durango’s food tapestry.

Nick Gonzales


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