Almira and Kalbi grew up in a foodie family. In their home region, the two sisters' parents ran a restaurant for decades, and the four of them would go on epic six-hour road trips to seek out specific dishes, Almira said in a recent interview.
The sisters identify as ethnic Uyghurs and have just opened Mrs. Khan in downtown Menlo Park, which they say is one of the only ethnic Uyghur restaurants in the Bay Area.
Their home region, called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, has been occupied by China since 1949, and the Uyghur ethnic group has been subject to extensive and ongoing human rights abuses.
Older sister Kalbi (short for Kalbinur) came to the U.S. in 2010 for college and, except for a visit in 2011, hasn't returned. Younger sister Almira came to the U.S. in 2015, which she said was a culture shock — police could just come to her family's house in Turkestan and take their belongings away, and the norm was for the government to surveil phone and social media use, she said. After college, the sisters settled in Sacramento, where Kalbi ran a limousine business.
While visiting friends in Menlo Park, Almira said she used to peek through the windows of the former restaurant at the location — Juban Yakiniku — and imagine opening a beautiful Uyghur restaurant there.
"Menlo Park is a beautiful town," she said. "Everybody is so nice (and) polite."
When she saw the space was empty last year, she talked to her sister and they got in touch with the landlord. They were surprised when they learned they might be able to afford it.
It took some convincing to get the landlord to take a chance on two first-time restaurateurs, but eventually they landed the lease. The sisters moved to Foster City and began their venture.
"The sad part is that my family doesn't know I'm opening a restaurant," Almira said.
Today, the sisters say they and others from the region put their families at risk by getting in contact with relatives back home and may themselves face demands for their personal information by the Chinese government as a result, Kalbi said. Their parents' passports have been taken away and the sisters aren't currently in touch with them.
The Uyghur population in the United States is estimated to be between 10,000 and 15,000 people, according to the East Turkistan Government in Exile.
"All of us are living here like orphans, to be honest," Kalbi said.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kalbi said, the Chinese repression in her home area has become even more intense, with sensors and locks installed on residents' doors as part of the country's "Zero COVID" policy.
Growing up, the sisters had different approaches when it came to cooking. Almira said she was curious about everything in the restaurant kitchen and was always trying to sneak in to watch the chef cook. She would cry to her parents whenever she got kicked out.
"I loved to see how the magic happened," she said.
Kalbi, on the other hand, said she didn't know how to cook Uyghur food when she first came to the U.S. and was sad at first about her college cuisine options, which were mostly fried foods or salad. Over time, she said she picked up the craft by watching online cooking videos.
"My people — we love to eat our food, but not everybody knows how to cook," Almira said. "I want people to have a place they can ... go out and talk with friends, talk, sit for a long time (and) have something hot."
Right now, the restaurant is in its soft-opening phase and the menu has fewer items than it will after its grand opening, likely early in the new year, Almira said.
They're working on training their staff to prepare cuisine that may be new to them and are eager to support the immigrant community as a job provider — including non-English speakers. They're also planning to bring in a new chef in the new year.
The menu includes as its starters a vermicelli salad, Uyghur salad and gosh naan, a meat and bread dish.
The main courses include a Uyghur chicken korma option; laghman, a meat, vegetable and pulled noodle dish; spicy rice noodles; spicy rice cake; polov, a rice pilaf in the Uyghur style; and stir-fry beef noodles.
The sisters note that because they are Muslim, they do not serve alcohol or pork. To accompany the meals are an assortment of sodas, plus pots of green mint tea, fruit tea or Uyghur milk tea.
And for dessert, the restaurant offers strawberry and Nutella cheesecake, each served with chocolate, vanilla or green tea ice cream.
Mrs. Khan, 712 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park; 650-752-6460.