The faded name on the sign at the front of the strip mall says Aswan, but the restaurant's door says Monroe's. Under either name, Monroe's Café serves foods from Louisiana, Jamaica, and East Africa.
If you're wondering how one kitchen can manage three such distinct cuisines, the trio is swept together by a surge of the Atlantic Ocean officially termed the Gulf Stream; slave traders called it the Middle Passage. Today, the powerful current that runs from West Africa to the Caribbean Sea brings hurricanes to Florida, but three centuries ago, it brought ships carrying West Africans doomed to raise cane on the hellish sugarcane plantations of the New World, from northeastern Brazil up through the West Indies to the Louisiana swamps. (Rice, cotton, coffee, and tobacco plantations came later, but sugar was the original economic engine: The rum made from it kept the sailors sailing.) Although Somalia is on the east coast of Africa and wasn't significantly involved in the American slave trade, its foodstuffs still speak to the African foundations of the New World's "Creole" cuisines.
Monroe's has two spacious rooms decorated sparsely with African craft objects. The booths are brightened with yellow and green stripes painted along their sides, the tables are covered with white linen, and the wooden chairs are comfortable. The room that gets the heaviest use has a long buffet table permanently outfitted with chafing dishes, ready to be filled and emptied at the busy weekend brunch buffets. The more formal room to the left of the hostess station displays a tank of gorgeous tropical reef fish. A meal here may also flow on tropical time -- if a lot of customers are calling in and picking up takeout orders while you're waiting to be served. Sit back and relax, mon, soon come.
Our journey through the culinary Middle Passage started with a splash in East Africa. Since Somalis are Muslim, no alcohol is served here, but we didn't miss it once we tasted the refreshing elixir of Somalian iced tea. No, it's nothing like Nestea or Lipton's. A fine black tea is brewed with exotic spices, including green cardamom, and just enough sugar to be seductive, not syrupy.
Somalia's best-known contribution to San Diego cuisine is the sambussa. (You can even find them packaged in the refrigerator case at Henry's Marketplace and other fine groceries.) The small triangular pastry packages resemble India's samosas and come in seven flavors, although not all are available daily. My favorites are the beef, spinach, and curried potato. A sweet version features luscious melted cream cheese and raisins, with powdered sugar dusted over the shell.
The African extravaganza dish is called Fadarayshan (a.k.a. "federation"), a groaning platter laden with Somalian specialties, including lamb shoulder, chopped beef, sautéed spaghetti, and several different vegetable arrays. I was relieved to hear that the kitchen hadn't cooked it that evening, as it's a daunting mountain of food. What I really craved was doro wat, a chicken dish shared with neighboring Ethiopia and Eritrea. It's served here with beef in a "Zigni Xabasui Combo." The bird is fall-off-the-bone tender in a slightly spicy tomato sauce that has a looser texture than the dense Ethiopian version. The dish includes the traditional hard-cooked egg that signifies respect for one's guests. The zigni is a zesty mixture of hand-chopped beef sautéed with onions and bell peppers; we asked for a seven on the heat scale, but it arrived as a nonetheless-tasty two. Accompanying the dish are gomen (spinach) and aleeja, a lightly curried mixture of cabbage, potatoes, and carrot chunks that proved thoroughly engaging.
My posse found a new favorite in Monroe's African-style coconut shrimp (also available as coconut fish), which resembles Southeast Asian curries, with bits of green and red pepper, onion, and tomato swathed in coconut milk, a scattering of coconut flakes over the top. At first bite, one of my dinner guests said, "This is the dish for me." Who could blame him? The shrimp came with Indian-style multicolored rice and an aleeja, amended that evening with peas and corn kernels.
Sailing over to the Caribbean, the Jamaican treat you shouldn't miss is caramelized fried plantains -- warm, ripe, and sweet. (Available solo as an appetizer, they also come as a side dish with all the West Indian entrées.) Another typical island appetizer is patties -- savory turnovers resembling empanadas. They're shaped into large rectangles here, unlike the more modest half-circles usually encountered, and the shells (which the restaurant purchases ready-to-bake) are a little thicker and tougher. The chicken filling was savory but dry; I'd bet that the beef filling (when it's on hand) is moister.
"That's no goat, it's a kid," said my partner when he tasted the small, tender ribs of curry goat. They really are goat, the owners tell me -- marinated overnight in whole spices and then cooked slowly for hours, they're tamed of gaminess and come robed in a soothing, barely spicy curry sauce. (At that meal, we'd specified six on a spice-scale of ten and consistently got twos again.) Oxtail stew, however, tasted as if the tail came from a real ox and not some heifer -- a mature fellow with rings of fat around the edges of the meat. Cholesterol aside, the stew is mighty good-tasting, with a dark brown sauce that's sweet from a foundation of caramelized sugar, subtly seasoned with nameless "Jamaican spices" (as the menu says). I've heard that the chicken or fish in brown sauce are good bets here, too (I certainly like them at sister restaurant Island Spice). At two different meals, we tried to order jerk chicken, but it wasn't available. Sporadic unavailability is a pattern at Monroe's. This is an out-of-the-way restaurant serving out-of-the-ordinary cuisines, and you can't always get what you want -- but you can always get something good.
Caribbean entrées come with side dishes of fried plantains, salad, and a vegetable mixture similar to the aleeja, plus "rice and peas," the Caribbean's red beans and rice -- "peas" are actually kidney beans in most of the former British West Indies (except in Trinidad and Tobago, where they're "pigeon peas"). That Thursday evening only one other table was occupied and closing time was nearing, so perhaps the cooks decided to use up the old rice instead of making a fresh batch; the grains were dry and clumpy. Entrées are often best at lunch and during the big weekend brunch, when you can order from the menu, if you prefer. Too bad for us working stiffs who don't work or live nearby.