Crying for Argentina at Kengeles

I never thought I would be cheering for the Argentineans. After that crazy Falklands War, I mean. Mind you, I was one of the first Brits to go to Argentina after the war. I was in Buenos Aries for a conference. 1985 it was.

Sorry, my Kenyan friends, but Argentinean steaks are the best I’ve ever tasted. Even when not cooked in a fancy kitchen and a special oven like they have at the Karen Hemingways. The Argentinean Salsa dancing is the most elegantly erotic. And the people when I went there were very welcoming and very hospitable. No-one mentioned the war!

Anyway, in the final phase of the Rugby World Cup, the Argentineans were the underdogs, weren’t they? And the Brits always side with the underdogs, don’t they? Not only that, just as the Brits side with any team playing the Germans at football, so they side with any team taking on the Australians at rugby – or cricket, for that matter.

So my favourite place for watching the rugby is Kengeles at Lavington. That’s where I was last Sunday evening. And I was looking for revenge, after the Australian demolition of England. I guess most of the Kenyan watchers were with me, too. I was amazed how vocal they had been for England in that match against Australia.

The Lavington Kengeles was the first restaurant and bar to open in Lavington, back in 1998. And it is very close to my office. It was the place for working lunches and after-work sun-downers. There was a small courtyard at the back, with four tables set out on the grass and stone slabs. So there was a pleasant and relaxed garden atmosphere in those days.

Problems came along when the owner, Gavin Bell, established a franchise scheme for all the Kengeles outlets – there were the ones in ABC Place, Koinangi Street, South C – and also one in Juba in South Sudan. It was the first such franchise scheme in Kenya. But it didn’t work out; it proved impossible to maintain standards.

Then, at the remaining Kengeles, the one in Lavington, the grass was covered over with concrete; a broad canvas cover kept off the rain (and also the sunshine); and Kenya Breweries branded the place with their plastic chairs and plastic-topped tables. It became a rather down-market sports bar.

Also, from an ambiance and food-quality perspective, Kengeles was losing out to the likes of the Artcaffé in the Lavington Mall, Mambo Italia in the Lavington Curve, the Tokyo Japanese Restaurant near the Jacaranda Garage, and La Palanka West African Restaurant further down James Gichiru Road.

So Kengeles faced something of an identity crisis. Gavin, and his wife Kelly, have responded. The new roof at the back now lets in light; more space has been created; some comfy lounge chairs have been introduced, and stylish wooden tables and chairs have replaced the plastic ones. There is still work to be done but, clearly, the place will be much more appealing.

It certainly has had great appeal for this Rugby World Cup. Even in the group stages, plenty of people came. And for the knock-out stages the place has been packed. It was very hard to find a seat for the Argentina-Australia match.

I caught sight of a friend and staunch Rotarian, Joe Otin. So I asked him why he had come to Kengeles rather than walk across to his own local, the Explorers.

‘Explorers is fine, as you know. But Kengeles is much more of a Sports Bar. I reckon everyone here tonight has come to watch the matches.’

True. And before the rugby, there was the Manchester Derby – United versus City. Not only that – Gavin came over and said, ‘There’s something I must show you!’

He led me through the melee, and pointed out an American intently watching American football streamed on his laptop.

Yes, like this, Kengeles can certainly compete with those places I mentioned above – if it concentrates on being a proper bar. It has the right kind of lively atmosphere, interesting music, and bar-style bitings.

The food? That evening it had to be the Kengeles platter, for the sons and me – piled with potato wedges, pork spare ribs, sausages, samosas, mbuzi strips, chicken wings, veggie tempura – with a few mini burgers on the side. Two of us returned the next day to revisit the lunch menu. It has some of the old favourites – like the Tingling Tikka spicy chicken, the sizzling Kamakazi Kuku, and the Whole Tilapia, with that ‘irresistible Kisumu feel’.

And the match? Well, it was a case of crying for Argentina. They were out-roughed and outplayed by Australia.

Who will we be shouting for when the Aussies take on the New Zealanders in the final? The New Zealanders, of course. They may not be at all the underdogs – but they are playing the Aussies.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation