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.
Finally, we set our course for Louisiana -- specifically, New Orleans, because the flavors at Monroe's are generally more Creole than Cajun. (They do have some fake-Cajun "blackened" stuff, but as the Caribbean saying goes, "I ent eatin' dat.") An appetizer of Southern-fried chicken wings resembles a spicier, less greasy version of KFC's. Crab balls are an eccentric deep-fried marriage of hush puppies and crab cakes, mingling lump crab with an equal amount of assertively seasoned bread filler.
Co-owner Teresa Randall makes gumbo from a recipe handed down by her Louisiana-based family. It includes an intense seafood broth with a multiplicity of chopped-fine ocean critters. "It's got all the seas in it," she says. "Some you see, some you don't see." Mixed with a dark "mahogany" roux, it's a richly seasoned bath for tender whole shrimps, hunks of in-shell crab, and bits of sausage. Our cupful came with just the right amount of rice added, and the soup was spiced exactly to our specification of "seven out of ten." (Maybe the third visit convinced them we meant it.)
The Louisiana entrées are dominated by water-creatures. The crawfish étouffé is a standout, and it's available three ways: alone, as part of a seafood platter, and as a sauce for fried snapper or catfish. This light and colorful Creole rendition -- its tints mirror the Ethiopian flag so revered by Jamaican Rastas -- sports red crawfish tails and bits of green pepper in a deep-yellow, satiny sauce based on golden roux, garlic, and onions. Served during one lunch as part of the "Atchafalaya Seafood Sampler," its companions were the aforementioned crab balls and a "stuffed shrimp" -- a crabbier crab ball with a shrimp sticking out. Fried snapper and catfish arrived in a light, greaseless batter, and fried oysters sported a puffy batter similar to heavy tempura. The large oysters are bottled, not fresh-shucked, with a strong mineral flavor.
The chicken-and-shrimp jambalaya (eaten at the same dinner where we were served dryish "peas and rice") didn't thrill me at all, possibly because it, too, tasted as if it had been cooked hours earlier and reheated. The rice was clumpy, while the shrimps and chicken breast bits were dried out. It might be better at lunchtime, if you like your jambalaya with lots of tomato.
As with the other two cuisines, the N'awlins side dishes are savory. We loved the buttery candied yams, tasting like fruit in their nutmeg-spiked sauce. Collard and mustard greens are well spiced and cooked tender -- the New World's take on gomen. Vegetarian red beans and rice are pleasant, but since they're made to Halal standards without pork products -- what, no grease? -- they're shy on flavor. Now that Magnolias has opened in Market Creek Square, the city is no longer starved for authentic Creole soul food, but Monroe's makes a very creditable showing in this area.
If you want to sample all three of Monroe's cuisines simultaneously, an appetizer sampler provides a "survey course," with tidbits (all described above) from all three nations, each item also available separately. (The half-sampler, with two pieces of each, is $9; the full-size version, four pieces each, is $13.) The short dessert list seems like an afterthought, offering a canned-peach cobbler and a pair of simple cakes, served warm, that taste like something your mom made from boxed cake mix. If you yearn for a sweet, remember those enchanting cream cheese sambussas.
(Recommended historical fiction for those interested in the "Middle Passage" period of New World history: Charles Johnson's Middle Passage and Barbara Hambly's engrossing "Benjamin January" mystery series, based in early 19th Century Louisiana, especially Sold Down the River for its vivid depiction of life on a sugar cane plantation.)
ABOUT THE OWNERS
Monroe's started out as Aswan Restaurant, a joint project of Somalian chef Maryam Suliman and Louisiana-born activist (and gumbo chef supreme) Vernon Sukumu. Its slogan was "Where the Mississippi meets the Nile," as it served the cuisines of New Orleans and Somalia. After the owners parted ways, Sukumu kept the restaurant, including its Somali staffers. Two years ago, he sold the operation to Teresa Randall, whose roots are also in Louisiana, and Jamaica-born Ransford Samuda (nicknamed "Ran"), who co-owns the charming Jamaican restaurant Island Spice (on Grant Hill). Ran added his homeland's cuisine to Monroe's mix.
There's no Mr. or Ms. Monroe here. "We named it after my father," says Teresa, "for his hometown of Monroe, Louisiana. He raised me here, but of course all of my family's recipes get passed down through the generations." Teresa often cooks in the restaurant. "When I don't make the gumbo," she says, "the customers complain."
Ran arrived from Jamaica 20 years ago. "I came here on an athletic and academic scholarship to Point Loma University, where I got my bachelor's in biochemistry. Then I graduated from law school, but after a couple of months of law practice, I decided I didn't want to do it on a long-term basis. So after that, I did this and that.
"I got into the restaurant business by happenstance -- I had no interest in it. I started with a Jamaican nightclub near where Island Spice is now, and another Jamaican associate of mine had a restaurant. They were providing the food for my nightclub business. He decided to go out of business just months after he opened...At the time, there was no other Jamaican restaurant in the area. I thought it was a tough business, but with the right crew it would be a nice niche, and that's how I got into it. That was 1995, just ten years ago...I took over Island Spice and started running it July 1, 1995, and Teresa Randall and I bought into Monroe's in 2003."
There are three or four cooks in Monroe's kitchen at most meals, some of them local residents with Louisiana roots, and (more intermittently) a Jamaican cook. "I actually brought in a Jamaican lady a couple of weeks ago," said Ran, "and she just started cooking yesterday. But when we don't have an authentic Jamaican in there, I hop up two or three times a week to make the sauces." The African cooks are unchanged since the Aswan days. "When we bought the restaurant from Vernon Sukumu, we kept the Somalian cooks," says Teresa. "They're here every day, and they do all the East African dishes."
Weekend brunches are when Monroe's enjoys its best crowds. "We need to do something to get more people in on Tuesday through Friday. The problem is, 'Location, location, location, says Ran. On Friday evenings, the restaurant often sweetens the deal with live music from a small jazz group called the B3 Four. "Sometimes people think that when we have live jazz, they're going to have to pay for it," says Teresa. "But all they have to do is come and eat."