As black and white images of Frida Kahlo and Malala Yousafzai gaze out from a mural inside Comal Heritage Food Incubator, lunch seekers queue up.
They’ve come for the chips and guacamole, churros with mango and strawberry jam, calabacitas, rice and beans, Venezuelan burritos, birria, puerco en salsa verde and pork tamales, all made from fresh ingredients. Mexican, Syrian, Ethiopian, Venezuelan, Salvadoran — the menu changes regularly, reflecting the heritage of whomever is in the kitchen.
But patrons are doing more than filling their bellies, whether they know it or not. By shelling out a few bucks for lunch, they’re helping Focus Points Family Resource Center operate Comal as a training program for refugees and immigrants who hope to open their own businesses or find jobs in the food industry.
“It’s a rigorous program,” said Jules Kelty, executive director for Focus Points, a nonprofit that serves low-income families in the greater northeast Denver area. “It’s not easy to launch your own business. The restaurant industry isn’t easy. The women in here are very serious about this work.”
On a hot Wednesday morning in October, Comal is jumping, with people scattered inside and out, waiting at long picnic tables for their food. Thanks to a mention in The New York Times’ best restaurant list of 2021, the lunch-only hotspot in the Five Points neighborhood set a record the previous day, doing three times its regular sales.
“On a recent visit to Comal, long-cooked pork shoulder with a redolent salsa roja came with tortillas on the perfectly near side of pillowy,” wrote Brian Gallagher in the Times.
Kelty appreciates the recognition.
“The real win is raising awareness for this program and also the benefit to the community,” she said. “A lot of the money that comes through here goes directly back to community members, so we’re contributing to building community wealth as we’re doing this program.”
There’s also an unspoken ingredient responsible for Comal’s sublime cuisine: love.