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Trial by Fire: The Making of Ali Mookhi and Khan Saab

Halal chef-owner’s success came with burns, hunger and tough love. Now Imran Ali Mookhi has two restaurants and two more in the works.


Chef Ali Mookhi of Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen in Fullerton on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Culture OC
 

Determined to seek his fortune in America,17-year-old Imran Ali Mookhi didn’t have much to go on in 2000. The night before he left his hometown of Karachi, Pakistan, his extended family came to wish him well. But his father gave him a harsh lecture, along with $1,000 and a one-way plane ticket to Los Angeles. 

 

“Have your vacation and when you are ready to come back, call me. I will send you a return ticket.” Mookhi was shocked. He thought his father planned for him to settle in the U.S. and be a good example for his siblings, an older sister and two younger brothers.

 

“You want me to come back?” 


His father answered: “You’re my son, but you’re a piece of (expletive). You are nothing without me. So, you're not gonna make it. Just go have a vacation and come back. You can’t survive without me. You’ll be back in a month.”

 

Mookhi wasn’t just stunned, he was insulted. “That statement triggered me. But it made me who I am right now,” he said. “I told my dad that night, ‘You know what? I won't come back for at least 10 years.’”

 

Now 41, Mookhi is an American entrepreneur. His Fullerton restaurant, Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen, has been recognized with a Bib Gourmand, Michelin’s award for outstanding cuisine at reasonable prices. A media darling, Khan Saab has appeared on Fox 11, KTLA and NBC LA, and has a long list of traditional and new media accolades including Eater LA’s 38 Essential Orange County Restaurants; The Orange County Register’s Best Restaurants in Orange County; the Los Angeles Times’ 22 Great Places to Eat Halal in Southern California and OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice award.

 

Expect to hear more from this chef who recently launched Shor in Hawaiian Gardens, a new concept with stylish décor by AkarStudios, specializing in foods like those found at Chor Bazaar in Mumbai. 

 

Both restaurants serve Desi dishes, traditional fare from Indian subcontinent countries such as Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Afghanistan. 

 

So it’s no wonder that Kahn Saab’s logo is a hip halal dude in turban and shades – Mookhi knows his business and the trends. Desi cuisine has been gaining popularity as well-traveled foodies have come to recognize and crave it, and as immigrants from those countries have arrived in some of America’s largest cities. 

 

According to migrationpolicy.org, Indians represent the second largest U.S. immigrant group, after Mexicans. The 2.7 million Indian immigrants living in the United States as of 2021 made up 6% of the total foreign-born population, and their numbers continue to grow.

 

Mookhi’s restaurants focus on dishes from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The menus defy borders, gathering foods from a common culture. “Our concept was that we're all the same,” he said. “So why not just call ourselves Desi, separate that partition and bring everyone in one room?”

 

His signature is taking the best of these homespun crowd pleasers and street foods and elevating them by layering in complex flavors and dressing them in fine-dining style presentations.

 

PHOTO 1: The Sloppy Khan is Keema Pav Wagyu beef on spiced gun-powder dusted Pav bread at Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen in Fullerton. PHOTO 2: Chicken Karahi is prepared using boneless chicken, spiced tomato and fried shishito pepper. Photos by Paul Rodriguez, Culture OC

 

He’s also embraced the alcohol-free trend; all his menus follow halal tradition and showcase beverage programs that include craft mocktails and zero proof wines and beers. When Khan Saab opened in 2020, The Orange County Register reported that it was the only alcohol-free bar in Southern California, the fourth in the nation.

 

Mookhi, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two young daughters, sat in Khan Saab while his staff prepared gourmet dishes for a photo shoot. He sipped fragrant, spice-laden chai while reflecting on his teen years. 

 

Incredible as it seems, this restaurateur who dazzles food writers and Michelin inspectors with his curries, kabobs, biryanis and street delicacies started out struggling just to feed himself.

 

“I had family here,” he said. “And when I got my visas and contacted them, they're like, ‘Yeah, come.’ At first, they were supportive.”

 

He landed in the U.S. and faced a rude surprise. “When no one showed up at the airport, I didn't know what to do. I was clueless,” he said.

 

Completely alone, he ended up sleeping in airports and bus stations until he found a job as a dishwasher. It was a lifestyle to which he was completely unaccustomed. 

 

ISLAM AND THE LEGACY OF GIVING

 

Growing up in Pakistan, young Ali, as he was called, was living large. His father worked in the banking industry and provided the family with many comforts. “We grew up with maids, cooks and drivers at home. I had never worked over there,” Mookhi said. 

 

His father had even supported the cousins who stood Mookhi up at the airport, helping with their transition to America. Giving was natural in the Mookhi clan. It was part of the legacy of growing up in the Islamic faith. 

 

“Friday is a holy day for Muslims,” he said. “They all go to the mosque and pray. After the mosque, you come out and help other people.”

 

Young Ali started each visit to the mosque by working in the boot stand, checking in and out the shoes of the faithful. After prayer was over, his father would take Mookhi to a restaurant where they would help those in need who were standing in line hoping to be fed. 

 

“He was actually buying the food from the restaurant and giving it to 40 or 50 people each week,” he said. “Giving is in our culture, it's in our religion, it’s in our blood. That's what we'd been taught growing up. And that's the legacy we kept when we ran into the COVID situation here.”

 

In March 2020, about a month after Khan Saab opened, the pandemic hit. Restaurants were forced to close their doors. But Mookhi swung his wide open, not for paying customers but for charity. He kept his staff employed, and every Friday he offered free hot meals and bags of rice and lentils to anyone in need, even if he had to deliver them himself because the recipients were too proud to be seen waiting in the handout line.

 

Khan Saab also catered complimentary meals to hospitals, schools and places of worship, ultimately feeding over 15,000 Southern Californians. The program was so successful that Mookhi was asked to extend it to the city of Corona. “When I see people who need help it always brings back memories,” Mookhi said. “Whatever I can do to help people, I’m always there.”

 

During these divisive days, when a vocal contingent of Americans equates Muslims with terrorists, Mookhi tries to teach about his faith, not through preaching or politics, but with kindness and compassion. He agrees with President George W. Bush who spoke to all Americans after 9/11, saying “Islam is peace.”

 

“It's a beautiful religion,” he said. “You have to pray five times a day. Just the process of it makes you not want to commit any kind of crime or sin. Because if I do that and then I'm going to pray, what am I going to show to God? What am I going to say?”

 

PHOTOS 1 and 2: Manager Mohsin Raza prepares the dining room at Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen.

PHOTO 3: Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen in Fullerton. Photos by Paul Rodriguez, Culture OC


HIS SALAD DAYS: DOMINO’S AND MCDONALD’S

 

One Domino’s pizza cut in half to make two meals. One McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich combo that he devoured at exactly the 12-hour mark of each day. When he first got to America that was all Mookhi had to eat in a day – at an age when some men are still growing taller and most are continuing to develop muscles.


“On Fridays it was $1, so I could eat four or five of them,” Mookhi said of the McDonald’s meal. He laughs it off today, but the hunger was real. When he sees anyone in his kitchens wasting food, he reminds them, “You guys have not felt what hunger is.”

 

To see Mookhi in his element, you’d never guess that he had grown up nearly starving. Distinguished looking with dark hair and neatly trimmed salt and pepper beard, his eyes sparkle when he talks about his wife and kids, foods he loves from back home, business plans – any of his passions.

 

He stays fit by playing cricket, a utility guy who bats and bowls. But as a young man there was little time for fun. He worked in restaurants to support himself and to pay tuition at Glendale Community College. “Just like every other Indian or Pakistani person, I wanted to be an information technology engineer.”

 

A man of many talents, he’s good at languages and speaks Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and Gujarati. On the job he learned Spanish easily while working in the back of the house where many coworkers were Hispanic. He had studied English as a boy and understood it, but had little opportunity to speak it; he learned quickly once he started performing tasks outside the kitchen. 

 

All the while, he worked his way up in a fast-paced industry. “There's a culture in a small mom-and-pop Indian restaurant,” he said. “They try to use you as much as they can.” Today, in his 2,500-square foot-restaurant with about 70 seats, he has 10 employees in the kitchen.

 

But when he was working as a teen, there would be only four in a similar sized restaurant. “There's a dishwasher, a prep guy, a tandoor chef and a main chef. That's it. So, there's a lot of pressure.”

 

It was literally a trial by fire. Back then, tandoor ovens were fueled with charcoal which Mookhi was exposed to on a daily basis. It gave him such severe heartburn that by the time he was 18, he had to quit restaurants for six months. He worked temporarily in a gas station and then as a paperboy. 

 

But he recovered and went right back into the kitchen. At 19, he landed at Gaylord India Restaurant, a posh dining room on Beverly Hills’ restaurant row. “It was a big deal to work there and a big deal to eat there,” he said. A chef named Vicky – he doesn’t remember his last name – took him into the spice room and blew his mind.

 

“At my last restaurant, there were five spices,” he said. “Here, there were 100. I thought, ‘Oh my God. I don't know anything about this. I just know how to make naan.’ And I thought, ‘They’re going to fire me.’”

 

But Chef Vicky, who had been working at Gaylord for 15 years, was kind and nurturing. “He was a great guy,” Mookhi said. They all called him Paji, a term of respect that means big brother in Punjabi. “He was my mentor when it came to basic cooking. He taught me how the spices play a role in the food. When to put the spices in what dish, what are the right timings of the spices and all that.” 

 

He was also taught how to taste spices because occasionally a new delivery would be a little bit different than the same spice received a month before. “You taste it and figure out if you still need to use one spoon or you need to use half a spoon,” he said.

 


He never attended culinary school, but his experience at Gaylord forever changed his palate. Today, Mookhi’s restaurants receive 700-800 pounds of spices each week, some arriving straight from India and Pakistan. Certain dishes take 24 hours to cook. His depth of knowledge integrating Eastern and Western cuisine shows in every dish. 

 

Smoked beef kabobs are flavored with garlic, shallots, yogurt and mustard oil, and the dish is finished with a swirl of smoke. In Pani Puri, a small puff of pastry stuffed with garbanzos, potatoes and onions is perched atop a small glass filled with a refreshing mint-tamarind water. The Falsa Tini mocktail served in shapely, vintage style stemware gets its brilliant sweet-tart flavor from the Grewia Asiatica or Sherbet Berry, a flowering plant that was first found in India and then taken to Pakistan and other countries.

 

Lauded by local food writers, the menu is savored by sophisticated gourmands such as “Top Chef” star Amar Santana, owner of Broadway and Vaca, who dines at Khan Saab.

 

But VIP or not, Mookhi’s kitchen serves everyone the same way. “If we run out of something, I tell the staff, we're 86 on that dish,” he says. “Don't give people something that they're not going to enjoy." 

PHOTO 1: The Smoked Beef Kabob, prepared with top sirloin, yogurt, garlic, shallots and mustard oil, is served with a swirl of smoke. PHOTO 2: The Pani Puri is puff pastry stuffed with garbanzo, potato and onion, and served with spiced mint-tamarind water. PHOTO 3: Mocktail Falsa Tini at Khan Saab is prepared using the falsa berry which comes from the same family as blueberries and blackberries, produced only in India and Pakistan. Photos by Paul Rodriguez, Culture OC


A TURNING POINT AND A CHALLENGE

 

As the years went on, so did Mookhi’s trial by fire; there were times when he almost quit for good. Like the night he burned himself making naan in a 600-degree oven. Still, he finished his shift, working several more hours before leaving for the hospital. It had become clear to him: Restaurants were his life and he wouldn’t trade his newfound profession for anything.

 

He realized one night while talking to his study buddies that their chosen career path in IT wasn’t for him. “They would always pick on me saying, ‘Hey, your mind is not on school. You need to focus ... one day we will all make it into the industry. And then you will always be behind us.’ And that would trigger me.” 

 

So, one bold night, he told them off. “Yes, I agree that you guys will become engineers. But guess what? I'm going to open up my own restaurant and I'm going to employ 25 to 30 people just like you.”

 

Mookhi’s prediction came true. Still, those friends from his student days keep in touch, calling for favors when they can’t get a table at his popular restaurants. He’s happy to hear from them even though they just couldn’t see back then that he was carving out his own American dream, his way.

 

Mookhi’s career path often seemed a struggle, but he stayed the course. The turning point finally came when he met Vineet Bhatia, the first chef from the Indian subcontinent to be awarded a Michelin star at London restaurant Zaika. The two were on the team that opened Tantra in 2002 in Silver Lake and Mookhi ran the place until 2012. It soon became an L.A. hot spot, dubbed “fresh, hip and sexy,” by the LA Downtown News. 

 

It was a heady time. While working at Gaylord, Mookhi had his first brush with fame; strangers who found out he cooked there were asking for selfies. So, when Tantra received a positive writeup in the Los Angeles Times, as owner of the restaurant, which he bought in 2006, he felt he had arrived. He reached out to his father and mailed a clip to Pakistan.

 

“Until then, they didn't know where I was working,” Mookhi said. “Because in our culture, this is considered like you couldn't do anything with your life, that's why you’re working at a restaurant. That's how badly they think of the restaurant industry in our culture.” 

 

This time, his father was pleased, proud and encouraging. So Mookhi kept at it. After Tantra he continued to work in executive chef positions at Tamarind of London (2012-2016), Dosa in San Francisco (2016-2018) and Tumbi in Santa Monica (2018-2021). Tamarind had earned a Michelin star in Europe but was flagging in Newport Beach. Mookhi helped turn it around within six months, but left after deciding it wasn’t the best investment; the percentage he was earning wasn’t worth its lease increase and the long commute from L.A. Eventually, the restaurant closed.

 

By then, ownership had become Mookhi’s forte and he threw even more irons in the fire. In 2016, he opened Mint, a popular neighborhooder in Laguna Hills that enjoyed a brisk take-out business and a busy outdoor patio service during the pandemic. It was doing so well he decided to remodel, but the new wiring was faulty; it started an electrical fire that burned the place down in 2022. He plans to reopen Mint in the same space or a new location.

 

He’s also creating a new concept, Cabana Lounge, with small plates and a hookah vibe, which will open by year’s end in Huntington Beach. 

 

Mookhi and his partner, Iqbal Hosseini, the co-owner of Khan Saab, Mint and Shor, keep expanding. However, they’ve decided that they would like to put quality first and have five restaurants at most. “I won’t retire,” Mookhi says. “I’ll ‘retire’ by checking on all my restaurants.”

 

But who knows? He loves a challenge. Years after he set out for America, he found out that’s why his father had given him such a stern warning the night before his flight to L.A.

 

When Mookhi returned to Pakistan, fulfilling his promise of making it in the U.S. in 10 years, his father greeted him at the airport with aunts, uncles and cousins in tow, and confessed. “He said, ‘I know from childhood you love being challenged. Put you in a challenge, you come out good. Don't put you in a challenge, you just don't do anything.’ So that was a challenge.”

 

After all was revealed, there were no hard feelings between father and son. Mookhi feels God was always watching out for him and he’s grateful for all he’s learned, even though the lessons were nearly unbearable at times. It’s all about being humble, he says.

 

“I have seen chefs when they get to where they're on top of the world, everything changes, and that's their downfall,” he says. “No matter what success brings, you have to remember who you were. I always remember who I was 24 years ago. I was a dishwasher. I’ll never forget that.”


Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen, 229 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton | 714-853-1081 | khansaaboc.com

 

Shor, 12155 E. Carson St., Hawaiian Gardens | 562-202-9274 | shorbazaarla.com


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