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Married, With Restaurant

Most couples promise to stay married "for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health," but no wedding vow directly addresses the problems unique to twosomes who take on restaurants. Of course, the "richer or poorer" part applies, but so does "and when the dishwasher calls in sick and one of you has to scrub pots and pans while wearing your best host attire." There are advantages to working with a spouse, though, including the fact that no one cares as much about making your restaurant a success as someone with a vested interest in it. And while some mates would probably kill each other if they had to spend 24 hours a day together, others thrive on the challenge of making it work.

"You get to where you have a system," says JoEl Griffin, who with her husband, Mo, owns So-Fully Kosha' Res-runt, a charming little spot tucked into an industrial park in Aurora. It's pretty much just the two of them--JoEl takes orders and serves while Mo cooks--but that's fine with the Griffins, who in their 22 years of marriage have had only one real fight. "It was a catering party we did in February for Coors," JoEl recalls. "They told us 700 people, but Mo started making food for 1,400. I mean, we're talking a lot of food, about a hundred different entrees. I told him he was a fool, and I was mad, 'cause I thought he was crazy. But he said, 'Mother, you just let me take care of it, I know what I'm doing.' And, do you know, about 1,700 people showed up!"

The Griffins started catering five years ago. Mo had always cooked for friends, and they liked his food so much that they told other people about it. Soon he was catering real parties, regularly enough to quit his jobs working in other people's restaurants. But Mo never let go of his dream to have his own place one day. "I'm telling you, it got to be so bad that it didn't matter what conversation you started on, somehow he always got it around to how he wanted to own his own restaurant," JoEl says.

She helped him find it. A year ago this past September, JoEl was looking for a spot they could use for a catering office and as a space to show her paintings, and she came across a location in Havana Square. "I thought, 'You could do a lot more here than catering,'" JoEl says. "So we moved right in."

In fact, it looks as though they moved almost their entire house into the place. JoEl's paintings--which she somehow manages to work on between restaurant duties, writing two books and keeping track of three adult kids, a twelve-year-old, a five-year-old and the set of twins and their brother that she and Mo are in the process of adopting (the Griffins have fostered 98 children since 1990)--fill the walls, along with art created by her friends. Each table is layered with quilted tablecloths, hand-stitched placemats, whimsical collectibles and antiques, and the rest of the dining room is packed with chests, birdcages, pottery and other intriguing knickknacks. The food Mo sends out from the kitchen follows the same homey theme. It's "so-ful," as the Griffins phonetically pronounce the word, mimicking the way some African-Americans--which they are--speak. "Mo's from Louisville, Kentucky," JoEl says. "And that's just the way he talks."

And so the menu features such items as "hot lanks" ($5.90), fearsomely hot split sausages on toasted bread with lettuce, tomato and onion fixin's. The sandwich comes with two of that day's handful of possible sides; we picked barbecue-sauce-thickened baked beans and French fries. With the fried catfish ($5.90), a big plank deliciously armored in a cornbread coating, we tried mixed steamed vegetables and candied sweet potatoes so cooked down they were almost creamed; freshly baked cornbread also came with the fish. And then there was the pork ($6.50), a hefty chop smothered in a heavily seasoned gravy, which we wolfed down along with a mess of cabbage greens and mashed potatoes. Our toddler ate up the mini-cheeseburger ($2.50), which Mo puts on a dinner roll, and helped us work through a pile of fries blanketed in chile ($3.50) that carried a real bite. We all dug into the "cobbla" ($2), apple and cherry versions that had been warmed and oozed butter beneath a melting scoop of ice cream.

As we waddled out, we overheard JoEl ask Mo if he'd picked up something she needed. "Not yet, sweetheart, but I haven't forgotten about you," Mo said.

And we won't forget about them.
"You have to really like each other," says Shanti Shrestha, who owns Mt. Everest, a Nepalese restaurant in downtown Denver, with her husband, Sam. "I think it's a perfect situation, because we have communication like no one else. He knows what I am thinking, and I know what he is thinking." More important, though, they each know that if one of them has to be away from the restaurant, the other will work even harder to keep things running smoothly. "Who else can you trust as much?" asks Shanti. "And who else will support you the same way?"

The Shresthas--who've been married sixteen years and have three daughters--understand all too well how important that support can be. Their first solo venture as a couple, Narayan's Nepal, failed to overcome the difficulties posed by its Hampden Avenue location, and it closed in June 1995. That restaurant was an offshoot of the original Narayan's in Boulder, which is owned by Shanti's brother. Shanti and Sam had worked at the Boulder eatery for nine years--she was the head cook and he kept the books--and they thought the unique cuisine and well-known name would guarantee success in the Denver area. They didn't.

"We tried everything," Sam recalls. "But it was just a bad location. And then my mother died in Nepal and we had to go back there, so we sold the restaurant and took a year off to save some money to try again."

They had to move a few mountains to do so--their latest struggle is to obtain a liquor license--but their Mt. Everest could prove a high point in the downtown dining scene. The colorfully decorated restaurant already draws a large crowd to the lunch buffet ($5.95); so far, dinner hasn't been as successful. The Shresthas are pinning their hopes on beer and wine bringing more people in, particularly those looking for vegetarian dishes that are hard to come by in the city.

The main difference between the cuisine of Nepal and that of India is that Nepalese cooks use noodles and they don't use yogurt or dairy products in their curries. Shanti is the head chef at Mt. Everest, and she stocks the steam table with about twenty simple but excellent examples of straightfoward Nepalese fare. The day we dropped in, the buffet included a mild, pureed-garbanzo soup, a spicy lentil soup, vegetable chow chow (Tibetan fried noodles), spinach curry, chicken curry, samosas, a cauliflower-heavy vegetable stir-fry, a side of seasoned bamboo shoots and a typical salad-bar spread of lettuces and fresh vegetables, along with two different types of rice, one with carrots and fresh cilantro and one plain. An extra-large bin contained more rice, this time in the form of Shanti's wickedly sweet rice pudding, the best excuse for loading up on starch I've found. Raisins, almonds and plenty of sugar made this an addictive dessert as well as the ideal coolant after a meal that emphasized varying degrees of hot spices.

Those spices differed not just in heat but in taste; each curry had a distinct, complex flavor. We found the buffet offerings so impressive that we returned to attempt Mt. Everest's menu; once again, we were overwhelmed by the friendliness of the staff. Both Shresthas made a point of visiting every table; Sam, who oversaw the placement of each entree, also inquired several times, quite sincerely, as to how our meal was going. And it was going wonderfully: What else could we expect from an eatery with a picture of the Dalai Lama above the entrance?

An order of chicken curry ($7.95) brought chunks of tender chicken, both white and dark meat, soaking in a warm, aromatic sauce. The dish came with steamed long-grain rice, a pungent lentil soup (daal), a small helping of lightly sauced cauliflower with potatoes and cabbage (takari), and a chutney of tomatoes, garlic and cilantro (achar). From the seven-item vegetarian menu, we tried the vegetable sampler ($7.95): more chutney, more rice, daal, takari, steamed vegetable-filled dumplings and two samosas, deep-fried pastries filled with a spicy mixture of vegetables. The lamb curry ($11.95) only sounded expensive; the sizable serving of savory lamb chunks awash with a concentrated garlic- and ginger-enhanced sauce was worth every penny and was accompanied by rice, daal, takari and achar. The lamb-stuffed roti ($8.95) turned out to be a huge piece of whole-wheat bread wrapped around garlicky, curried lamb mixed with potatoes and carrots; it, too, came with daal and achar. The roti was the diameter of an individual-sized pizza and about an inch and a half thick, so eating the entire thing was out of the question.

By now we felt like we'd swallowed an entire mountain of wonderful food. But we couldn't resist more of that fantastic rice pudding ($3), or the lalmohan ($3), basically two sugar-soaked dough balls. The sweetness of the desserts was surpassed only by the touching way Sam thanked us profusely--about eight times on our way out the door--for coming to his humble establishment.

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