What the heck? The server places a miniaturized wagon on the table. It carries my lunch order—the Sloppy Khan sandwich—with whimsical flourish. I didn’t see that coming.
Surprises are frequent at Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen. Launched just before March’s stay-at-home order, the downtown Fullerton bistro is helmed by creator and executive chef Imran Ali Mookhi. Diners are now free to discover the refreshing charms of Khan Saab.
Consider that tiny handmade sandwich trailer. It’s meant to underscore the street food roots of the messy and wildly flavorful dish. But chances are the street hawkers in Pakistan don’t use wagyu beef in their keema pav, the saucy soul of this dish. The robust filling here is made with diced premium beef instead of lamb. Soft squares of fluffy bread are baked in-house. The dish illustrates Mookhi’s talent for elevating traditional fare by way of farmers market goods and rigorous technique.
Some will recognize the venue from its previous tenant, Pie Dog. I was completely fooled until I drilled down on the Commonwealth Avenue storefront address—the retool by local designer Areli Lases is dramatic. Here’s hoping the subdued vibe gets livelier as more folks return to dining in. Contemporary light fixtures draw the eye to a sleek bar, the main room is flanked with banquettes, and a hand-painted mural on the north wall is the star of the show. Created by the artist Naeem, it tells the story behind “Khatrnak Hassena” (Dangerous Beauty), a popular 1970s movie beloved by fans of Desi cinema, an admittedly select audience in north county. I do wish the intricate menu included a guide to the mural’s narrative.
The menu brims with familiar choices that include kebobs, curries, and street snacks. Then there are less-common dishes from Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan—broadening Khan Saab’s reach into the Desi spectrum. Desi denotes the people, cultures, and products of the Indian subcontinent. Yes, the creamy butter chicken is beautiful comfort food, and the lamb rogan josh bests any version around, but the dishes we don’t know so well are dazzlers. Smoked sirloin kebob has mustard oil heat that hurts so good you can’t stop. Pomegranate bhel puri—a puffed rice street munchie with peanuts, vermicelli, and garlicky tamarind—is a snack you’ll crave the next day. This is where your server can guide you through a challenging menu. Ask for deeper descriptions if you’re stuck.
Mookhi, a native of Karachi, immigrated at age 17. Years of cooking at noted Indian fine dining venues, including Tantra on Sunset and Tumbi, fueled his desire to open his own halal scratch kitchen. He applies Michelin standards to everything—from humble street foods to the 25-ounce wood-fired Australian wagyu tomahawk steak. Ribeye fans don’t expect to find a first-class steak like this outside of a steakhouse. Grilled over wood, it comes with roasted garlic. All fresh chutneys taste hyper vibrant, adding jewel-hued pops of flavor whenever they appear. I suggest trying the humble papadum lentil chips just to sample the trio of accompanying dipping chutneys: mint, tamarind, and tomatillo.
Whatever your dietary jam, Khan Saab has your back. Long appreciated by vegetarian diners, Desi cuisine accommodates many diets. Mookhi’s menu labels each dish according to its suitability for dairy-free, egg-free, gluten-free, nut-free, and vegan diets. In keeping with halal principles, Khan Saab serves no alcohol. But that’s not a negative because Mookhi and mixologists Ahmad Hosseini and Craig Nemeth offer a fascinating roster of meticulously crafted mocktails. Order a smoked Negroni or Peshawari Mule and be wowed by the refreshing, complex libations built with 0 percent spirits, bitters, and botanical essences. Mocktails aren’t new, but a bar that goes all in on no booze? Didn’t see that coming.
Two words for dessert lovers: chocolate samosas. Warm, crispy pastry encasing molten Ghirardelli chocolate that inevitably dribbles on vanilla gelato riding shotgun. So messy, but in the best way. Double ka tukda is white bread pudding with the traditional garnish of edible silver leaf. Freshly fried dessert donuts, shahi gulab jamun, are made for Nutella.
Mookhi is philosophical and unruffled about the rocky events confronting the debut of Khan Saab. Of the pandemic no one saw coming, he says: “It happened to everyone, all of us.” A chef who keeps his head when others are losing theirs? Calm confidence is a rare, delicious ingredient. Here’s hoping local diners will seek and savor it at Khan Saab.
Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen
229 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton,
5 BEST DISHES
Papadum three chutneys
Pomegranate bhel puri
Smoked sirloin kebob
Sloppy Khan sandwich
Snacks, kebobs, curries, $5 to $22
Steaks, $30 to $150
Mint, the Pakistani cafe in Laguna Hills, is a more casual cousin.