Earlier this week, just a few hours before I was to meet fellow 5280 contributor Allyson Reedy for dinner at House of Kabob, the news broke that Denver restaurants would immediately be required to reduce indoor dining capacity to 25 percent in response to a statewide spike in COVID-19 cases. Unsure whether the Middle Eastern mainstay in University Hills would even be operating that evening, I arrived to mixed signals, literally: The sign in the window said “Open,” but the chairs on the other side of the glass were stacked atop the tables.
Fortunately for us, front-of-house manager Nargis Khan was indeed seating customers at the few booths lining either side of the dining room. Better still, she was doing it with a big, bright smile. Not that we could see her face behind her mask, of course, but we could hear her genuine laughter and feel the warm glow of her enthusiasm as she offered recommendations. A few items I remembered from past visits were no longer available—lamb’s tongue soup and the savory pastries called sambosek, for instance, not to mention wine and beer—but Allyson and I nonetheless wound up with a feast, every element of which we marveled over: the luxuriant texture of the garlicky yogurt dip called lebnee. The earthy richness of the ghorme sabzi, a beef stew with beans, loads of green vegetables, and intriguing seasonings such as dried lime. The tenderness and tang of the kobeideh kabob, essentially cylindrical meatballs of lamb and beef, accompanied by textbook examples of hummus, tabbouleh, and saffron rice. And the zing of dough, a savory yogurt drink with which we washed it all down.
Coronavirus notwithstanding, then, I left relieved that nothing much seemed to have changed at House of Kabob since my first meal there several years ago. Yet, when I spoke with Khan a couple of days later, I learned there was a whole lot more to the story than met the eye—a story full of change, sure, but also awe-inspiring hope and determination.
For starters, hospitality apparently comes to Khan naturally, because she has no formal background in it: She’s been working the floor at House of Kabob only since July. That’s when her family, along with their chef-partner Hashem Moradi, took over the 35-year-old business from the previous owners, who had themselves purchased it from the original proprietors a decade ago. The founders of the restaurant were Persian and their successors Lebanese, which explains why the menu incorporates dishes associated with both cuisines—fattoush on the one hand and the chicken stew with walnuts and pomegranate called fesenjan on the other.
As for the fact that the menu is quite a bit shorter than it used to be, that’s of course due partly to the realities of the pandemic. But it’s also due to the new owners’ long-term vision for House of Kabob, which is to gradually introduce dishes from their own homeland. Explained Khan, “My family has been in Denver since 2008; the chef has been here only four years. We are all refugees from Afghanistan.”
Given the courage and grit required to build a whole new life in the country that has been waging war with your own for 20 years, it’s likely that the Khans and Moradis are better equipped than most to handle the pressures of entering the restaurant business during a global health crisis. In fact, Khan sees her past as central to the heart she shows as a host. “My customers, I make sure I know their names, and I’m open with them,” she told me. “If they introduce [a subject], you name it, I will talk about it. We talk about family, spirituality, voting; I wore my sticker today to start that conversation even though I voted a couple of days ago. [Regulars] tell me, ‘You’re feeding my stomach, but you’re also feeding my soul.’”
And that’s the goal for Khan, who is also a master’s candidate in Islamic studies who plans to obtain certification as a Muslim chaplain when her one-year-old daughter is a little older. “Living in a time when Islamophobia is so high, xenophobia in general is so high,” she continued, “we hope that our service will open up people’s hearts and minds to people who are different from them—people who are forced to leave their country. We didn’t choose to leave. But now we’re proud Americans. And this [restaurant] is also our American dream.”
On that point, Moradi himself had something to add. “What I love about cooking—how can I say that,” mused the chef, who spent a few years in Turkey honing his skills before coming here. “The most important thing is when our customers say the food is really good and fresh; that is how I get the energy to make it better and better. Taking a lot of time and carefully making [things] special: This is my love for cooking.”
House of Kabob is open Monday–Saturday, 11 a.m.–9 p.m. and Sunday, 12–9 p.m.; 2246 S. Colorado Blvd., 303-756-0744