Born and raised in Pakistan, Chef Imran ‘Ali’ Mookhi immigrated to Southern California when he was just 17 years old. His welcome to the U.S. wasn’t without its challenges, though. He moved to Los Angeles alone and spent his first night in the airport, then slept in storage spaces for a week until landing a job as a dishwasher at a local Indian restaurant. As luck would have it, the mom-and-pop business had a staff apartment that afforded him a place to stay.
That marked the first step in a 20-year journey that would see him train under several world-class chefs before founding Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen and leading it to achieve Michelin recognition.
“Initially, it was just a job to pay the bills while I went to school,” Mookhi says. “Like every other Indian or Pakistani person, I thought I’d go into the IT field. But as I started working my way up to line cook, prep cook, and all of that, this industry just kept my interest.”
After climbing the ladder at various restaurants, he landed at Tantra, an Indian fusion eatery in Silver Lake, California, starting as a sous chef and eventually taking on the role of executive chef. From there, he held top spots at several high-caliber concepts throughout The Golden State, including Tamarind of London in Newport Beach, Dosa in San Francisco, and Tumbi in Santa Monica, where his contributions were highlighted in the Michelin Guide’s “25 New Discoveries for California” in 2020.
Food was an integral part of Mookhi’s culture growing up. While he was captivated by the extravagant presentation of other international cuisines in the U.S., he noticed traditional Pakistani food wasn’t displayed in the same manner.
“I started thinking about how there was a need for high-end, upscale Pakistani food,” he says. “Being in the restaurant industry, I’d always have chefs asking me to take them to a Pakistani restaurant. There are a few hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop restaurants in the Los Angeles area that I’d take them to. While the food was really good, the presentation was very traditional. The decor wasn’t there. The service wasn’t there. You’d get in and get out but it wasn’t really an experience.”
Mookhi opened Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen in Fullerton, California, in February of 2020. Breaking away from the confines of a single country’s culinary boundaries, he drew inspiration from the rich tapestry of Desi cuisine found throughout South Asia. The farm-to-table restaurant offers a culmination of dishes from Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan with a modern and elevated twist, served in an eclectic and elegant atmosphere.
The menu features familiar choices like Classic Chicken Curry and Smoked Beef Kabob, plus signature recipes inspired by traditional dishes that are less familiar to Western audiences.
“Growing up back home, I’d eat these items that are available on every corner of every street in every town,” Mookhi says. “When you go to a Pakistani or Indian restaurant, you don’t see those items on the menu. Every restaurant highlights kabobs or biryanis or butter chicken. Nobody is paying attention to the street food. So, our idea was to take that street food and make our own version of it.”
That updated take on South Asian street fare comes in the form of dishes like Pomegranate Bhel Puri, featuring crackers, rice puff, peanuts, vermicelli, mint, tamarind, chili, garlic, and chutney. A standout item is Sloppy Kahn, made with chopped and spiced keema wagyu beef laid on gun-powder toasted pav bread. The dish is presented on a wagon with working wheels in a nod to the street carts from Mookhi’s childhood.
The restaurant is 100 percent halal, meaning the menu abides by Islamic law and may be consumed by practicing Mulsims. That’s a key point of differentiation for the steak menu in particular, which includes Australian wagyu beef bone-in tomahawk steaks and 24-ounce boneless ribeyes.
“You can go to a couple of places that might have a couple of halal steaks, but there’s no high-restaurant that really focuses on that,” Mookhi says. “People really appreciate that we’re providing something that’s not available at other restaurants.”
In line with halal tradition, Khan Saab offers an alcohol-free mocktail bar. The program is led by mixologists Craig Nemeth and Ahmad Hosseini and features creative drinks like the Mango Mojito made with mango nectar, the Naswari made with caramel and spiced orange ale, and the Tower of Peshawar made with elderflower tonic–all crafted using Seedlip Non-Alcoholic Spirits. Those options are available alongside more traditional beverages like lassi, a dahi-based drink made with a blend of yogurt, water, spices, and fruit.
“We didn’t know it until we opened, but I think we were the fourth one in the nation and the first one in California to start doing a bar with no alcohol at all,” Mookhi says. “We serve things like wine, champagne, beer, tequila, gin, and whiskey, but they’re all non-alcoholic.”
Khan Saab was forced to shut down just a few weeks after it opened in February of 2020 due to COVID restrictions. The restaurant wasn’t set up for takeout or third-party delivery. That made navigating the early days of the pandemic a challenge. Mookhi says the business found its footing as dining limitations gradually relaxed. In 2021, it earned a Michelin Bib Gourmand Award, which recognizes the best value-for-money restaurants offering a three-course meal at a reasonable price.
Demand for the elevated Desi cuisine has been so strong that Mookhi is now gearing up to open another restaurant centered around upscale halal offerings. The project, called Shor Bazaar, has been under construction for almost a year and is slated to open later this fall in Hawaiian Gardens, near Cerritos, California.
“We’ve been nominated three times for the Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand Award at Khan Saab, but the target of this new restaurant is to go for a star,” Mookhi says. “Our focus over there is to bring halal food into an even more upscale, high-end concept. The menu is completely different. There are a couple of dishes from Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but it isn’t a Middle Eastern restaurant. It’s just a halal restaurant.”
For all the success and recognition he’s garnered since he first came to the U.S. over two decades ago, the chef is still influenced by his early days in the back of the kitchen washing dishes. Those humble origins provided a unique perspective that shaped his approach to leadership.
“I remember the owners, chefs, managers, and all of these people coming in and out of the kitchen, and nobody talking to you or even saying hi to you,” Mookhi says. “That was a big learning lesson for me. Now, the first thing that I do when I walk into the kitchen is go up to my dishwasher and talk to them. Starting from the bottom made me realize that every position is important, and you should be talking to them and acknowledging their hard work.”