This RiNo Restaurant Wants You to Meet a Refugee and Try Their Food

In October of 2016, Comal opened its doors with a big idea in mind. Described as a “heritage food incubator,” it strove to create a restaurant that would help women entrepreneurs from the neighborhoods of Globeville, Elyria and Swansea learn skills in culinary arts, business and language.

The project, developed by Denver non-profit, Focus Points Family Resource Center and Zeppelin Development, kicked off with a class of 15 Latin American women. Comal then encouraged them to make food using their own recipes and heritage methods of cooking. The concept proved to be a hit and now they are back for a second round with a new set of entrepreneurs. But this time, instead of only accepting women from down the street they have broadened their horizons by a few thousand miles.

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Vian and her daughter Sara, and Omaima and her daughter Walaa, are Syrian refugees and the latest additions to the Comal team. Sara explained while they have only been in Denver for six months, they quickly found out about Comal from a friend. She said they recommended it because Sara is well versed in Syrian cooking and has experience working in a restaurant. But Sara admits that she was mainly interested in joining the project because she knew it could help her mother.

“It’s not for me but for my mom because she loves to cook. It’s her passion and I thought, ‘now if I get involved in it I might get an opportunity for her find her dream.’ She always dreamed about opening up a restaurant.”

Sara and the other Syrian women will serve lunch on Fridays only from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m (on Monday through Friday Comal will serve Latin American at the same time). On the menu, you can expect classic Syrian dishes such as a Kibbeh, a fried dough filled with ground meat and Middle Eastern spices, as well as other meat dishes, salads and of course hummus and pita. Sara explained they will start off with familiar foods but may expand into more dishes not as well known by Americans.

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“We have a large menu of food in Syria… For example, we have a lot of food with yogurt, cooked yogurt. We don’t know if people will like this [laughs]. And so we try to choose things Americans have tried before, although, Comal always tells us do our food, the traditional way. Maybe we’ll keep it traditional and people will learn about our food,” Sara said.

In addition to lunch service, Comal has off-site catering in order to help fund the project. Sixty percent of all revenues will pay the women for their work and 40 percent will cover their operational and educational costs. The educational component includes a custom curriculum that teaches entrepreneurs skills in marketing, financial literacy, computers and English, as well as culinary arts. But aside from the benefit for the entrepreneurs, a part of  Comal’s mission is to also help bridge the cultural divide between refugees and local Coloradans.

“Food always has and always will transcend cultural boundaries – it is a language everyone speaks. We look forward to using food and cooking as a catalyst to integrate Syrian refugees into Denver, as well as providing the city with some of the most authentic middle-eastern home-style cooking”, said Slavica Park, Director of Economic Workforce and Development at Focus Points.

For Sara and her family, she agrees that a part of her goal in cooking at Comal is a way to reach out to local Denver citizens.

“My mom cooked for us for 20 years and she always prepared three meals a day and never missed one, I don’t know how she did it,” Sara explained. “When I thought about it I thought that this is the way she showed us love and I think this is the way we can show people here love and appreciation for welcoming us here.”

Comal is located in TAXI I  at 3455 Ringsby Court, Ste. #105, Denver Colorado and is open Monday through Friday for lunch 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.

All photography by Brittany Werges.