Ask Jasmine Syrian Food
owner Mohamad Alnouri what life was like in Syria before his family fled, and he practically shuts down. He
still has family in Syria, and he's still very much horror-struck about what the government might do if they somehow found out he was blaspheming his country; he vehemently believes his family would be punished.
"I will tell you this: My father owned a big factory making chandeliers, with 35 shops around the Middle East. They took everything during the war; we lost everything during the war. My family fled to Egypt in 2015. We settled in Denver in 2017. I was the oldest. I had to get a job to support my parents and my brother," Alnouri explains.
A job? Try several jobs.
His first week in town, he secured employment as a dishwasher at Kachina Cantina in downtown Denver. He didn't speak one word of English, and communicated using Google translator, which impressed Nadeem Abraham. "I work with the Muslim community as an initial point of contact, and I met Mohamad two days after he arrived in the country. I could tell right off the bat Mohamad had an entrepreneurial spirit," Abraham says.
Three weeks after he arrived, Alnouri enrolled in Emily Griffith Technical College to learn English. When Kachina promoted him to line cook, he also signed up for a food safety course at the University of Denver.
"I really wanted to work for DU in banquets, and I kept asking if they were hiring," Alnouri recalls. "I think [DU] hired me because of my persistence. So, yes, I was working at Kachina, going to school, working at DU in the evening, and then I got a third job as a Lyft driver. I'd work until 3 a.m., sleep a couple of hours. It was crazy."
Chicken shwarma is a popular dish at Jasmine Syrian Food.
In 2018, Mohamad's story took a turn, thanks to one local doctor. "I'm a privileged immigrant who wants to unload some of that privilege onto the less privileged," says Dr. P.J. Parmar, who owns Mango House,
at 10180 East Colfax Avenue. "Our society doesn't do a good job helping immigrants."
Mango House is Dr. Parmar's community outreach center, providing immigrants access to health care, social services, a pharmacy, a grocery store, a dental office and a small international food court.
"My parents were patients of Dr. Parmar in 2018 when he approached my father and I about opening our own restaurant, Jasmine Syrian Food. We were his first restaurant inside Mango House," says Alnouri, who tears up when he talks about how this one man changed his family's lives. "He helped us with everything, from applying for all the licenses to the permits, payroll, taxes — everything you can think of, he helped us."
"Mohamad's got a business mind; I just gave him the tools," Parmar notes of his protégé.
Alnouri quit DU and Kachina and opened Jasmine Syrian Food in 2019, to exceptional reviews. But he kept his late-night Lyft job, "just in case." For all intents and purposes, opening the food stall was like a magic carpet ride for the Alnouri family — and then the ride broke down.
Sooksay Snowballs are a sweet Syrian treat.
"We started building a strong following because all our dishes are so authentic and affordable, and I would also hand out my Jasmine Syrian Food business cards to everyone I drove a Lyft for," Alnouri recalls. "It was working, and then COVID hit. I canvassed the neighborhoods and local businesses with my cards, and by the grace of God, we survived."
"Mohamad's food, which are all family recipes, check all the boxes. Whether you're American, Middle Eastern or not, you will love the food. I highly recommend the lentil soup and Syrian snowballs," Parmar adds.
The Syrian snowballs are Sooksay Snowballs, a softer, biscotti-like ball swirled with chocolate, coconut and biscuits. The falafel is a fourth-generation recipe created by Alnouri's great-grandfather, Halal; Jasmine's popular chicken shwarma is the brainchild of his mother, Khulud; and the grilled kabobs were perfected by his father, Kasem.
"Can I say a bad word? Mohamad's family has done a remarkable job navigating so much shit. I'm so in awe of them. The family is like the food — super unique," notes Emily Goodman, Alnouri's English teacher.
In the nearly six years since Alnouri landed in America, he got married; had a baby boy that he named Kasem, after his dad; left that Lyft job; and sometimes thinks about opening a second Jasmine Syrian Food.
"That's up to God. Anytime I've asked for help, He's been there. All of this is from God."
Jasmine Syrian Food is located at 10180 East Colfax Avenue (inside Mango House) in Aurora. It's open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Learn more at jasminesyrian.com.