At this Denver nonprofit restaurant’s monthly dinner parties, you can do good while dining out – The Denver Post

A dinner at Comal Heritage Food Incubator is not your average Denver night out.

Once a month, inside an industrial River North dining room covered in murals of Malala Yousafzai and Frida Kahlo, the nonprofit restaurant opens its doors for an evening service that showcases traditional meals from the Middle East to Mexico. At these Impact Dinners, a single chef or a small group serves multiple courses, pours wine and cocktails and fosters thoughtful table conversation.

In the 2½ years that Comal has been open inside the Taxi development, around 15 immigrant and refugee cooks have gathered to prepare weekday lunches for the neighborhood, like pork estofado and carne asada tacos or lamb kebab Hindi and fattoush salad.

The restaurant trains chefs, most of them longtime home cooks and women, to start their own catering businesses, food trucks and restaurants around the city.

“I don’t know why this hasn’t been a thing (before Comal started),” executive chef Tim Bender said of the concept. “Give (these women) a platform, because they’re probably better cooks than you are.”

At the March Impact Dinner, the meal began with a Bosnian meza of smoked meats, cheeses and spinach-filled pastry. It continued with local spring salad, a chickpea and tomato harira soup from Syria, and Mexican birria de res served with handmade corn tortillas. For dessert: lemon-soaked hurmasica biscuits, also from Bosnia.

“We’ve got Bosnian, Syrian, classically trained American, Mexican and all kinds of alcohol here,” Bender said with a laugh as he explained the food and drink offerings at the start of the dinner.

Amina Memic, who immigrated to the United States 11 years ago from Bosnia, first attended an Impact Dinner at Comal for her birthday. She cooks hand pies weekly now in Denver as a way to connect back to her home country. For the March meal, she brought her husband and two young sons along and volunteered a traditional meza platter.

“I don’t think I did anything special. I cook this food every day,” Memic said of her contribution.   “I really cooked this meal like I was cooking it for my family.”

Originally from Syria, Sara Nassr, 22, joined Comal just so her mother, who dreams of opening a restaurant, would get involved in the program.

“(My parents) spent their life just surviving or helping their children survive,” she said. “I wanted to help them start over.” Coming to work at Comal weekly with her mom, she has since found a community in the restaurant. “I love everybody here,” she added. “It’s like my family.”

For the March dinner, Nassr made a harira soup — rich but not heavy — that’s typical for breaking the fast during Ramadan.

Inside the open kitchen, Bender instructed her in the art of plating a spring vegetable salad, while volunteers poured drinks or tended a big, bubbling pot of beef birria. Chef Erika Rojas prepared the fan-favorite stew, which came out as the main course, with salsas and warm tortillas and all the fixings. It all but silenced its audience.

“There’s a confidence that comes from being in a place like this,” Sharon McCreary, who attended the dinner, said. She works with adult refugees at Emily Griffith Technical College and runs A Little Something refugee crafts collective, which set up a booth of items for sale before the event last month.