Palm fronds tickle the patio tables while clattering horsetail reeds shelter diners from the commotion of El Cajon Boulevard. Inside, tables are hugged by plush seating aged by repeat visits by loyal customers over the years.
During the day a lunch buffet fills the corner of the dining room. Customers fill plates with curried lentils and fresh greens, while in the kitchen, a flurry of chefs sear and sauté buffet refills and prepping pans festivals and farmers markets.
Before Flavors of East Africa opened in the colorful storefront on El Cajon in 2011, June was slinging Kenyan favorites at San Diego County farmers markets, and his dishes remain staples in OB, Hillcrest, and SDSU.
A second permanent location is now open on College Ave adjacent to San Diego State University, where students have long flocked for his iconic veggie bowls and sambusas at the weekly market tent.
Many of Kenya’s traditional dishes capture the maritime relationship between East Africa and India. This rapport was forcibly accelerated by the British Empire’s dual occupation of India (until 1947) and Kenya (until 1963). Today, Indians compose one of Kenya’s larger minority populations, sharing ownership of common fare such as samosas brimming with lentils and potatoes and chapati, the thin unleavened bread eaten with stews and veggies.
June spend time working in the spice markets of Mumbai, India, and in his capable hands, Kenyan staples like braised collard greens and cabbage come alive as they are sautéed tender-crisp in garlic and black pepper. Hominy, beans, and root vegetables bathe in a turmeric-toned brothy Nyoyo.
What to Order
The Masala Fries ($7.95), a modern Kenyan staple, are a standout appetizer.
Thick cut potatoes are sautéed in tangy tomato sauce with onions and fresh cilantro and arrive to the table on a dramatic trail of steam. These fries are one of the few vegetable dishes available only in the original restaurant on El Cajon.
Deep fried triangles of sambusas ($10.50), bulging with spicy lentils, savory potatoes, or wilted spinach, also make a great start to any meal.
For the entrees, the best approach is to try a little bit of everything.
A dollop of coconut curried dengu lentils laze next to shimmering cabbage and collards in sukuma wiki. Fragrant coconut rice spotted with kidney beans and a sweet plop of fried plantain fill plates during the daily lunch buffet ($12.99 from 11am to 3pm), and while meat is offered, no one is missing out by sticking to the inherently vegan legume, grain, and vegetable options that make up the majority of the spread.
One of the benefits of the buffet is seeing the dishes in their full form—guests push through cinnamon sticks and cartwheels of star anise to portion themselves wali (yellow rice) and root through sweetly stewed tomatoes to find the perfect hunk of silky biriganya eggplant.
To appease customer requests for injera (a sour teff crepe popular in Ethiopia, not Kenya), sheets of the fermented bread are sourced from neighboring Awash Market and included on the buffet, though, during dinner service, these interloping breads are replaced by traditional folds of house-made chapati, set on every table.
Pro Tip: Even if you come for the buffet, order the Masala Fries.
Visit Flavors of East Africa
2322 El Cajon Boulevard, University Heights
Hours: Daily, 11am-10pm