By Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer
Food is a necessity as well as entertainment. We need it to survive but food can often bring people together and silence differences. This is due, in part, because a room is quiet when everyone’s mouth is full.
Northern Colorado has a few restaurants that highlight the diverse cultures that exist in Northern Colorado. Instead of hamburgers, they serve steak on a stick. Instead of meat, they use eggplant. Instead of French onion soup, they serve pho. What they all have in common is a passion for the food they cook and a genuine love of service.
Afghan food is not Middle Eastern food,and it is not Indian food. It is a style all its own and at Maza Kabob it is much-loved by loyal patrons who have made the restaurant number one on TripAdvisor.com for best quick bites in Fort Collins.
A veteran in the food business, owner Sayed Sayied opened Maza Kabob in 2011, 30 years after coming to the U.S. from Afghanistan. His love for and skill with food started early.
When he was in 8th grade, he wouldcook for his siblings, although it was unnecessary as the family had a cook. Later, when he came to the U.S., he cooked dinner for his friends. It was so good they did not believe that he had cooked the meal. Now he serves up the flavors of Afghanistan to eager Northern Colorado diners.
Somewhat concealed in a strip mallnear Wilbur’s Total Beverage, Maza Kabob cannot easily be seen from College Ave. Despite their location, loyal fans have been coming since the very beginning.
Originally, the burrani eggplant was the favorite dish of customers at the restaurant, but lately, number one is the steak kabob. Marinated in spices for many hours, the Maza Kabob, as it is called, is served on a skewer with basmati rice, potato korma, Afghan salad and yogurt salad.
Sayied operates the restaurant with his son, Omar. They take great pride in the fact that they have heard “this is the best dish I have ever eaten” many times over the years. Part of the adoration of the food comes from the recipes at Maza Kabob, but Sayaid stresses the freshness of his products makes a big difference. He visits the supermarket daily to buy the best meats and the crispest vegetables.
It is the freshness of Raska International’s cuisine that has been bringing patrons in for 18 years. The tiny restaurant with an open kitchen is intentionally small. “It’s like I am inviting people into my home kitchen,” says owner Hanna Selassie.
Her Ethiopian restaurant is the only Black-owned restaurant in Fort Collins, and while the cuisine of Ethiopia isn’t vegan, most of what Selassie serves is vegetarian and vegan. Of course, the traditional Ethiopian chicken is a favorite at Raska. It is tomato-based, and the chicken is cooked until it is so tender that it falls off the bone.
Started as a way to create interest in Selassie’s Raska sauces, the restaurant was well-received and continues to feed hungry patrons today, many from Colorado State University, which is across from the restaurant on Laurel St. Everything at Raska is made with locally sourced ingredients, in accordance with Selassie’s philosophy that food is incredibly important to the soul and health.
“When someone eats here,” she says, “they put their feet in my shoes, and it’s a beautiful thing.”
Dishes at Raska’s include items like lentil stew, sweet yams and butternut squash with coconut Raska sauce. These colorful entrees are served with injera, Ethiopian flat sourdough bread. Not only is it perfect for scooping up rice and vegetables, it is also healthy.
Selassie’s passion for service can be experienced through each bite of her food and in a cup of Sophia’s Tea. Named after her daughter, it is similar to chai but brewed with African spices and nut milk.
“This restaurant has given me so much more than just an income and I think it is very important for someone to have passion for what they do,” says Selassie.
For many, Pho Lan is more than just a restaurant, it has become a part of their lives. Loveland resident John Metcalf is such a big fan that he painted an art piece for the owners that hangs over “his” table in the restaurant.
“Their food and kindness are amazing,” says Metcalf.
For the first two years it was open, Khaiand Lan Tran commuted from Aurora to Lan’s Loveland restaurant on U.S. 34. Finally, they relocated to Loveland with their children and the restaurant eventually moved to an airy space on 29th Street, where it is today.
Over the years, Pho Lan has becomea part of the Loveland community with customers attending family milestones like the graduations of the Tran children.
“This is a true family business. All mysiblings and I grew up working in the restaurant. My parents always strive to make it better and better, and they work so hard to make customers satisfied,” says Vi Tran, who works Saturdays at Pho Lan. She is also a full-time Chemistry student in Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University.
Pho is served with broth, rice noodles, herbs and meat. It is considered the national dish of Vietnam and while it was originally a breakfast food, it is now eaten worldwide at any time of day. In Vietnam, however, hot beef pho is still a beloved breakfast.
The most popular pho at Pho Lan is #7,which is a combination of beef, brisket, tripe and tendon and #5, which is rare beef and well-done brisket. Pho at Pho Lan is served with a side of bean sprouts, Thai basil, cilantro, lime wedges and jalapenos. Hoisin sauce and sriracha can be added or put on a plate as dipping sauces for the meat.
There is more than just pho here and the restaurant features noodle bowls, rice plates, Pad Thai noodle dishes, Lo Mein, curry and lunch specials.
As the only Indian restaurant in Greeley, Sherpa Grill Indian Nepali Restaurant has cornered the market in this Northern Colorado town. It is the first Sherpa Grill in the area; a second one opened in 2019 on West Elizabeth St. in Fort Collins. While the Greeley location has only been open for four years, the restaurant has gained a loyal following, including local Heather Bean, who owns nearby Syntax Distillery & Cocktail Bar.
“I love Sherpa Grill for both dine-in and take out,” says Bean. “The owners and employees are great folks, and the food is always flavorful and made to order with just the right spice level. My go-to dish is lamb or chicken saag with hurt-me hot spice, but honestly I love everything I’ve had, and have left the lunch buffet dangerously full on a number of occasions.”
In a bright blue building next door to the Greeley Ice Haus on 8th Avenue in downtown, the Sherpa Grill lunch buffet proved to be popular with locals. However, with pandemic restrictions they had to reconsider their lunch options. Today, they offer a lunch special that is buffet-inspired and includes a little bit of most things a person might get from the buffet.
To those who grew up with this style of food, it is colorful and comforting. Patrons love the standards like the chicken tikka masala and buttered chicken, but the menu has a large variety of vegetarian options as well, like the vegetable korma and saag paneer. The tandoori dishes are also popular.
The current manager, Nischel, hopes to add “hand foods” to the menu and has been trying out different ideas with guests who gratefully accept the samples and give feedback. He envisions a samosa that can be eaten in the car without silverware, and other items that are easy to eat on the run. A samosa is a fried or baked pastry filled with ingredients that vary from peas to meat.
Handheld foods are Christopher and Brenda Brookes’ specialty as the long line at their food truck, The Taco Man, proves. The food truck life has not been easy—Christopher says it is the hardest thing he’s ever done, and he used to work in oil fields.
After researching and assessing their skills—Brenda comes from the restaurant industry and Christopher loves tacos—it seemed like a food truck was something they could do well. Open since March 2020, they got their food truck inspection done one day before Larimer County closed all restaurants and businesses for COVID-19.
Christopher grew up in New Mexico and Brenda is from Sonora, Mexico. They serve a variety of tacos, a quesadilla and a tostada. The queso taco, filled with barbacoa and cheese in a slightly fried tortilla, is a crowd favorite.
“I never get to eat it because it sells outevery day,” says Christopher.
The trick to a good food truck is for the owners to love their own food. It helps when everything is made from scratch, which is what this couple does. Already booked until August, the truck can be found on Facebook, where they post pictures of their food and a schedule of where they will be each week.
“It’s about attention and love,” says Christopher. “There cannot be 99 percent days. You must give it all and just do it. It’s passion and doing things right.”
While they are often at various breweries around Northern Colorado, sometimes they park the truck at the liquor store in Berthoud, much to the delight of local residents.
Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer is a freelance writer from Loveland. She is the founder of HeidiTown.com and covers travel, festivals and The West. To comment on this article, email firstname.lastname@example.org.