Although you may not guess it from the name, James Street Café & Grill boasts an array of dishes that are characteristic of East African cuisine with a hint of Western fusion. Your taste buds will take you on a journey to Dar es Salaam, Nairobi and Kampala, although you will really be on the border of Vancouver and Burnaby at Canada Way and Boundary Rd. Recently, Prime Minister Stephen Harper ate at James Street Café & Grill with his entourage, seeking an authentic taste of East Africa.
The restaurant is located close to an Ismaili Jamatkhana (house of prayer), and the owner, Anish Lakhani, identifies as an Ismaili. Ismailis follow Shia Islam and their spiritual leader is the Aga Khan IV. Many Ismailis originate from Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, and many immigrated to East Africa prior to immigrating to Canada. Lakhani decided to adapt much of his menu to the Indian and East African fusion that resulted from the cross-cultural migration of this group.
Lakhani was born and raised in Uganda, and has the perfect background to ensure that his menu provides authentic East African Ismaili-inspired dining experience. The spices used in these dishes are plentiful. Indian food can be more garlic and ginger based, while the East African food made here is more lemon and chili-oriented with a mix of different spices. If you dare, ask for a separate bowl of the deadly pili pili sauce.
If you find yourself gasping for air and reaching for water, an option could be to order a lassi. James Street Café & Grill serves mango lassi and sweet and salted lassis. Their lassis are delicious and their yogurt base helps with the heat.
From the long list of appetizers, we chose a number of East African dishes and created a platter. With the platter came four homemade sauces. From the left, we have the East African Pili Pili sauce, hot sauce, tamarind sauce and then coconut cream sauce. With a variety of sauces that range from super hot to sweet and light, you can try the sauces on each food to see what complements and enhances the flavours.
Our five appetizers consisted of Nairobi Bhajia (potato fritters), Pili Pili Chicken Wings, Pili Pili Tiger Prawns, Fried Mogo (Cassava) and Vegetarian Samosas. Combination of meat, seafood and starches. The Nairobi Bhajia are the disc looking food on the top of the picture below. Thin and not doughy and goes great with the coconut cream sauce or tamarind sauce. Not salty and a fairly neutral taste. The fried Mogo is cassava that is an edible starchy root (looks like large french fries) and was not greasy. It was perfect – crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Good texture to offset the other appetizers. As a starchy dish, it helps to cut the heat from the other spicier appetizers. The samosas had vegetable filling that was not mushy. Crisp on the outside and not too deep fried. The two Pili Pili dishes were excellent on their own without the Pili Pili hot sauce. Both the prawns and the chicken wings grilled to perfection. Tender and tasty! You can adjust the heat hit with the amount of Pili Pili sauce you choose to add.
Four entrées were ordered. First up was the Kuku Paka. Grilled chicken and egg in coconut cream sauce served with basmati rice, naan bread and a small salad. Most entrées were served with basmati rice that was light, fluffy and enjoyable. The meat was tender, tasty and not spicy in any way. The coconut cream sauce really enhanced the flavouring. This dish was not spicy.
Next East African dish was the Halibut Masala served with Daal, masala fried potatoes and roti bread. Quite an experience eating the halibut that was topped with what looked like meat, but was actually masala. The potatoes were done perfectly, but the fish itself was dry. The masala piled on top was a great taste and combined well with the potatoes and roti bread.
Another favourite East African grilled meat entrée is Nyama Choma. Wow! The three meats ordered; steak mushkaki choma, chicken choma and beef ribs choma were delicious. These marinated meats were well-spiced, extremely tender and tasty. What a hit with everyone. Some of the best grilled meat eaten in a long time. The lightly fried masala potatoes were excellent so a fantastic dish.
An order of Goat Curry served with Naan finished our meal. For a couple of diners this was their first experience eating goat meat. The dish was very rich and filling. The sauce was thick like a stew with some chunks of potato. Typical of goat meat so more chewing needed, but well-received by the first timers. If you like Naan bread, this was some of the best served in any Indian restaurants.
Overall, food quality was very good and a good representation of East African cuisine. While this cuisine is advertised as spicier, we felt that many diners would find the dishes meet more moderate taste buds with success. If you wish, you can ask for spicy sauces on the side. It’s great that this restaurant is able to customize to fit each customer’s needs.
They have many vegetarian dishes. Entrées from the grill range from $9 to $18. Portion sizes are generous. We were too full to even consider ordering a dessert. This restaurant is great because of the diversity of the menu. You can choose from traditional Indian food, East African fusion, and North American dishes likes burgers, sandwiches and salads. Parking is adjacent to the restaurant.
James Street Café & Grill
Address: 3819 Canada Way, Burnaby
Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday
9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday