Comal has always been more than just another restaurant. Since launching in Taxi last October, the heritage food incubator (a partnership with Focus Points Family Resource Center) has provided a venue for prospective female entrepreneurs from the nearby Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods. Not only are the women cooking and and serving the Latin American foods that they grew up eating, they’re also honing their language and business skills during the eight-month-long program.
Now, Comal has enrolled a new class of immigrants, this time from Syria. On Fridays only, Sara Nassr, Vian AlNidawi, Walaa Almohamad, and Omaima Diyab are serving the recipes of their homeland—everything from hummus to a pistachio-topped semolina cake called “harisi”—as well as learning marketing and language skills. In the age of Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban” and strict stance against Syrian refugees, I asked Slavica Park, Focus Points’ director of workforce and economic development, if the enrollment of Syrian women was intended to send a deliberate message. “Misunderstandings stem from not knowing about another culture,” Park said. “Denverites are very welcoming overall, but you have to be intentional about bringing people together.”
At 10:45 on opening day (Friday, March 24), Comal’s executive chef Tim Bender and the hijab-wearing women prepared for their very first lunch service for paying customers—frantically adding last-minute seasonings to the rice, hoping that the “yalangi,” or stuffed grape leaves, had cooked through in the pressure cooker, and—most challenging of all—attempting to translate the names of the Syrian dishes for the new menu.
Watching the exchange illustrated just how ambitious Comal’s mission is: The women—two mother-and-daughter pairs—don’t speak much English; Bender doesn’t speak Arabic. Translation duties often fell to Damascus native, Sara, the youngest of the group, who attempted to describe the temperature at which the syrup-soaked semolina cake ought to be served and how the “lahme,” a kabob-esque loaf of lamb and beef served with a side of tomato-inflected bulgar, should be plated. The day’s menu was printed just minutes before the 11 a.m. opening.
Shortly, Comal began filling with a stream of customers. Bender and the women were deep in concentration as the first few orders came in, still fine tuning exactly how each plate should look; there was a bit of a lag before the food began to flow from the kitchen. But once patrons were served, smiles blossomed as they swiped homemade pita bread through smoky, pomegranate molasses-topped baba ghanouj and scooped up bites of refreshing fattoush salad. And as noon approached, the kitchen found its rhythm. “Food transcends everything,” Park says. After tasting that day’s tangy, comforting chicken-and-potato curry, we have to agree.
Comal’s Syrian menu is available on Fridays only from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dishes range from $4 to $13, and the menu changes weekly.
Taxi I (3455 Ringsby Ct., Ste. 105), 303-292-0770