Review: Simba Ugandan Restaurant in University City
Jonathan Gold would have loved Simba, the 7-month-old Ugandan restaurant with a backstory as powerful as its goat curry’s flavors. The brilliant, baggy Los Angeles restaurant critic, who died in July from pancreatic cancer at 57, championed restaurants like Simba: small, under-the-radar spots, usually in a nondescript strip mall, run by hard-working families cooking the food of whatever country they left.
For Christine Mukulu Sseremba, the country was Uganda, where she worked as an actress before starting a company that overhauled old computers to train women and poor students in information technology. Her problems began when President Yoweri Museveni’s brother wanted Sseremba’s company’s prime location. He seized her land, destroying the building, her livelihood and her life in Uganda. Fearing for her safety, Sseremba fled to the U.S. with her family in 2011 and gained asylum four years later.
It’s the kind of story fit for Italian opera: hope, jealousy, danger, subterfuge, despair, heroism and, finally, redemption. Cooking was Sseremba’s redemption. Always an avid home cook, she started cooking Ugandan food for her St. Louis church, then local international festivals and then in her own restaurant, Olive Green International Cuisine, in Jeffrey Plaza. Last year, Sseremba and her sons, George Knudsen and Majesty Mukulu, closed Olive Green to open Simba across the street in the building once occupied by Taqueria La Monarca.
Uganda’s history of British colonialism, which brought imported spices and many conscripted Indian laborers to build railroads in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, explains the mélange of complex flavors in Simba’s goat curry – rosemary and thyme with notes of ginger, garlic, cumin and clove, all infused with a subtle pepperiness.
A long simmer in a dark, aromatic sauce with tomatoes, potatoes and onions mellows the natural gaminess of the goat meat. Rice with peas, carrots and warm, savory cabbage delicately spiced with vinegar and pepper is served alongside. If there is better goat curry in St. Louis, I haven’t had it.
Simba offers a couple sambusas and some grilled chapati like those sold on the streets of Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. The former – flaky, puffy triangles stuffed with minced beef, vegetables, aromatics and spices (also available without meat) – are similar to the samosas of other countries, and just as addictively delicious.
Chapati, a flaky, unleavened flatbread good for soaking up curries and sauces, also comes wrapped around the classic Ugandan street snack, rolex – a thinly rolled omelet consisting of nothing more than eggs, cabbage, onion and tomato that lived up to its haughty moniker. Sseremba said it came from vendors hyping the snack as classy, like a Rolex. Another story goes that visitors misinterpreted street vendors calling out “rolled eggs” as “rolex,” but who knows?
Roasted chicken is a worldwide favorite, but Simba’s is my new infatuation. With its peppery, crackling skin rubbed with dry herbs, spices and slivers of caramelized onions and green peppers scattered about, it’s bound to be yours. Rather than the advertised fries, the two generous leg portions thankfully came atop a bed of pilau (a Ugandan cross between pilaf and fried rice), dark and savory with spices and diced vegetables. Kachumbali (a common East African salad of tomato, onion, garlic, green pepper and parsley) added refreshing brightness on the side.
Pilau and kachumbali accompanied other entrees, including pan-fried beef (nyama nsiike) and roasted pork ribs (mbizi enjokye). It wasn’t the beef that made nyama nsiike so satisfying – bite-sized pieces of chuck roast made tender by fat and a careful saute – but the incredible flavor of the Ugandan rub consisting of black pepper and warm spices like onion, garlic, cumin, rosemary, cilantro, parsley and soy sauce.
I loved the meaty pork ribs, marinated with garlic, onion and ginger and rubbed with another addictive spice blend before dry-roasted to a gnawable chew without drying out. If you also fall in love with the spices, Simba plans to sell its blends after expanding to include a small market section inside the restaurant.
Groundnuts, similar to peanuts but from a different legume family, are a staple often made into a sauce for matoke, a variety of green banana indigenous to Uganda. Simba steams these in banana leaves with onion and tomato before pouring on the savory sauce. I’d be lying if I told you it looks appetizing, but the dish was surprisingly flavorful, even for those with less adventuresome palates.
Simba doesn’t have a liquor license, but you can bring your own beer, which you may need as you wait an interminable amount of time for dishes to arrive, sometimes in the opposite sequence you ordered (though, when a rolex appetizer arrived at the end of the meal, it was provided gratis).
Chalk it up to the small staff, a solo cook or something typical of traditional international restaurants operating on a shoestring; just don’t let the unhurried service deflate the fun you’ll have exploring a new cuisine. It was during one of those waits that I checked my phone and learned of Gold’s death. I like thinking he would have considered Simba’s service lags as the anticipation of something new and delicious rather than an annoyance.
Where // 8531 Olive Blvd., University City, 314.475.5630, Facebook: Simba Ugandan Restaurant
Don’t-Miss Dishes // Roasted chicken, pork ribs, goat curry
Vibe // Cultural touchstones, African music videos and bright colors animate an otherwise spare space.
Entree Prices // $11 to $18
When // Tue. – Sun., 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Michael Renner is a longtime contributor and critic for Sauce Magazine.
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