Unlike many of his contemporaries, chef Imran “Ali” Mookhi didn’t grow up cooking in the kitchen with his mother or grandmother. And while he came into the culinary world later than most, it hasn’t stopped chef Ali (as he likes to be called) from becoming an industry trailblazer and garnering accolades. Most recently, he was working at craft Indian eatery Tūmbi, in Santa Monica, California, when the restaurant earned Michelin recognition. Now Ali is hoping to garner similar accolades with his own restaurant, Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen in Fullerton.
The chef, who emigrated from Pakistan in 2000, says he had zero experience in a kitchen before getting his first job as a dishwasher when he moved to the United States. He had never performed some of the most basic tasks.
“When I was living there [Pakistan], I didn’t even know how to boil water,” he says. “It all started here.”
After landing in California, Ali spent the first week trying to find accommodations and work. He slept for several nights at Los Angeles International Airport and then in storage spaces. Eventually he found a job at an Indian restaurant in Glendale, which also provided him with a place to live since the restaurant had an apartment where staff could stay as needed.
Although he had been hired to bus tables, Ali ended up washing dishes when he arrived; his manager said it was the only job available at the time.
“There was a pile of dishes waiting for me, and he told me this is what I have to wash,” he says. “My first reaction was, ‘I’m not here to do that.’ And he told me if I didn’t want to do the job I could have two more nights at the apartment, but then I would have to leave because it was for staff who worked at the restaurant.”
After a week without a home, Ali wasn’t eager to relive the experience. And in the end, the dishwashing position turned out to be the start of a very bright career for Ali.
After moving up the ranks at various restaurants, he landed a job as sous chef at Indian fusion restaurant Tantra in Silver Lake and later executive chef at Tamarind in Newport Beach, which the late food critic Jonathan Gold said at the time might be “SoCal’s best Indian restaurant.”
Flash-forward to the debut of Khan Saab in February 2020. Ali describes the concept as a dream come true and his biggest accomplishment yet. “Khan Saab allows me to elevate Desi cuisine in a way the American diner might not know is possible,” he says.
The word Desi refers to the people, cultures, and products of the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora. Desi cuisine specifically originated in areas of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Ali says the region has a varied food scene, with certain dishes being associated with each country, such as Biryani from Pakistan, seafood dishes in Bangladesh, and the famous curries of India. While there are regional differences, the cuisines of the respective countries use similar cooking methods and spices.
“When it comes to cooking, it’s pretty much the same,” he says. “We all use the same spices. All the techniques are the same. Each country’s population just happens to prefer to eat certain things.”
At Khan Saab, diners can find dishes that represent the entire region like one of the restaurant’s signature dishes Khan biryani (spiced boneless chicken served with biryani rice and Thai chili) or the Shahi Gulab Jamun—Indian donuts served with Nutella and chocolate wafers.
Ali’s goal for Khan Saab was to offer customers familiar flavors from the region while elevating the ingredients as well as the experience. You won’t find a vindaloo curry or chicken tikka masala on the menu, but not because he doesn’t like them. Rather, he prefers to leave those dishes to mom-and-pop restaurants. Instead, the menu features items like Australian Wagyu beef bone-in tomahawk steaks and 24-ounce boneless ribeyes as a nod to Khan Saab’s elevated ethos.
Another differentiating factor of Khan Saab is that the restaurant is 100 percent halal. Halal is an Arabic word meaning lawful or permitted, but in reference to food, it is the dietary standard according to the Quran. This means no alcohol is served at Khan Saab and the meat that is served has been butchered according to halal practices.
Although guests won’t find alcohol at Khan Saab, the restaurant boasts a robust craft beverage program curated by mixologists Craig Nemeth and Ahmad Hosseini. The selection features drinks like the Mango Mojito, which is concocted using mango nectar, mint, lime, and jaggery (a popular sugar in Asia). There is also the Peshawari Mule, made of zero-proof Seedlip Spice, ginger, mint, and ginger beer. Along with the spirit-free cocktails, Khan Saab offers a handful of nonalcoholic sparkling wine and beer.
The chef says having a 100 percent halal restaurant was important to him for multiple reasons. Not only is he a practicing Muslim, but he also wanted to fill a gap within the elevated dining scene for guests like him.
“We want to give something to that community,” he says. “Because if you look at it there aren’t a lot of places advertising themselves as 100 percent halal, certainly no fine-dining restaurants. So, we wanted to merge that concept with fine dining.”
Opening a restaurant at the onset of the pandemic was certainly challenging, and Ali had to close for a month or so to figure out how to operate under such circumstances. He says that since the menu wasn’t built for takeout, it was initially difficult, but as dining restrictions eased Khan Saab began to thrive. In fact, it’s performed so well that the chef is looking to open a second fine-dining Desi restaurant in the near future.
And after clinching Michelin recognition at Tūmbi, he’s eager to do the same at Khan Saab, which would make it the first Desi restaurant in the U.S. to earn a Michelin star.
“I want to make sure people can see that Indian and Pakistani restaurants can achieve those same awards,” he says. “They’re more than just restaurants where food gets delivered in a box. I want to show the world that our food is great.”