Approximately 6,078 miles from their hometown of Almaty, Kazakhstan, longtime friends and restaurateurs Almaz Yussupov and Anel Tucker are serving up fresh takes on Kazakhstani dishes at Hungry Hun, their new fast-casual eatery located in the Kalispell Center Mall.
Yussupov, Hungry Hun’s head chef, fled his home and his successful restaurant business in Kazakhstan in 2019, moving to the United States as a political asylum seeker. Before opening up Hungry Hun, the chef bounced between kitchens, getting his feet under him while the federal government processed his application for asylum. Yussupov served as a sous chef at the Raven in Woods Bay and the kitchen manager at Montana Coffee Traders, a pair of Flathead Valley institutions that helped fuel his love for northwest Montana and allowed him to try out some Kazakhstani cooking on his patrons. When he realized he had saved enough money to go out on his own, his first call was to Tucker, a friend from Almaty who had spent time in the Mountain West. Once Tucker joined on, the duo got to work on what would become Hungry Hun.
Hungry Hun’s menu offers a fusion of classic Kazakhstani flavors and dishes that are more familiar to American palates, like gyros, samosas and pho. Favorites of Yussupov’s include the Hun Kebabs with lamb and julienned carrots; Uzbek Pilaf, a rice dish with vegetables, beef and lamb; and the steamed dumplings, which come in flavors from bison and pumpkin to lamb and chives. The dishes served up by Yussupov take inspiration from across central Asia and Eastern Europe, including tastes from Turkey, Hungary, Uzbekistan and, of course, Kazakhstan.
Yussupov wears a number of hats in the Flathead Valley, a community that he now enthusiastically calls home. He is a devout Catholic, Zumba instructor, Nordic skier, marathon runner and, now, restaurant owner. It’s a reality that he calls his own “American Dream.”
Yussupov and Tucker sat down with Flathead Living to discuss opening Hungry Hun, cooking their favorite dishes, and bringing Kazakhstan to Kalispell. The following is an edited excerpt from that conversation.
Flathead Living: Can you talk a little bit about your journey from living and working in Kazakhstan to opening up a restaurant in Kalispell?
Almaz Yussupov: I’ve been in the restaurant business since 2002, so 21 years. I used to work in big companies in Kazakhstan, and I used to manage a big company in China. I had my own restaurants back home in Kazakhstan, and they were stolen by our dictator’s family. So I had to run away from Kazakhstan, move to the United States.
I applied for political asylum. When you’re applying for political asylum, you can’t work for six months. You have to wait for your documents, and I didn’t want to break the law and work under the table. Because it’s impossible to stay in Montana homeless for six months, it’s too cold, I found a place in Miami Beach. I sent them an email, ‘Hey, guys, what do you think? If I live in your hostel, I’ll work a couple of hours a day for bed and food?’ They said they have this option for international students.
When I realized I could afford something like [opening a restaurant], I offered to Anel, my classmate since third grade: ‘What do you think? We’re gonna open a Kazakhstani restaurant here in Kalispell.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, let’s go.”
Anel Tucker: [Almaz and I] had always been in touch. And a few months ago, I think it was in April, he was like, ‘I’m going to open a restaurant. Are you interested?’ I’ve never been in the restaurant business, but I absolutely trust him, because I know his experience. I’ve tried his food. A few times I was helping him to prep for friends, and I’ve seen how he works. He is absolutely a nice person and easygoing, so it’s easy to be partners. So, we signed the contract and here we are, in our own restaurant.
FL: What has it been like to cook Kazakhstani food in Kalispell, where people might not be familiar with the cuisine?
AY: Whatever you see here, it’s already Americanized. When people ask me something like, ‘What can you recommend?’ I’m always asking them, ‘What do you want? Rice, noodles, a burger, a sandwich?’ If they say sandwich, I can recommend them gyros. The burger, it’s the Hun Kebabs.
We also changed the names so Americans can better understand what it is. Like ‘Kazakh Pho,’ it has the Kazakh name ‘kespe.’ It’s ‘Kazakh Pho’ so people know that it’s pho, that it should be some broth with some noodles. Then I’m making it the Kazakh way because of the way we cook.
FL: Why did you decide to Americanize some of the dishes on the menu?
AY: The most popular food in Kazakhstan, which is like 60% of the market, is chevaline. It’s horsemeat. We are nomads. We eat horses. We were the first nation in the world, 10,000 years ago, to domesticate the horses, and we eat them. But we have three types of horses: we have horses you ride, you never eat it; we have mares, you take milk from them; and we have horses like cattle, like you have cows here. That’s the best meat you can try, because horse will never eat like dirty grass, will never drink dirty water. Also what’s cool, horse have natural alcohol in their blood, so when you ferment horse milk, it consists of alcohol.
FL: So are there things on the menu that would have been made with horsemeat back in Kazakhstan?
AY: Everything. We can make all this food with horsemeat. In Kazakhstan, first most popular meat is horse, then lamb, then beef, chicken and everything.
FL: What dishes have people been most receptive to?
AY: The most popular is the Turkish Gyro Roll, but I think it’s because it used to be a gyro place here before, so people are used to having gyros from this room. People are excited — something very new and they’ve never tried before are the Hun Kebabs. We have a couple of reviews like, ‘Ooh. I never had lamb, or I had bad experiences with lamb before, but this lamb was so good.’ Our second biggest sale is the Hungry Hun combo, when people can try all our dumplings in one plate.
FL: What’s your favorite thing to cook for people?
AT: I love to wrap dumplings. I love to fold them. Usually, I stay on the cashier system, but when they’re preparing, I’m like, ‘Can somebody be there and I will prep for them?’
AY: People usually ask me like what I can recommend, and I’m saying: I made this menu. It’s already the best of what I can make. So you can just follow your heart, stomach, or soul, wherever it’s pushing you, and you will be satisfied.
FL: What’s been your favorite thing about opening the restaurant?
AT: My favorite is decorating and organizing everything, putting it in the right places, making it more pretty.
AY: I love this American dream. I really can feel it. It’s a true story — American dream. I arrived on July 1, 2019 in JFK Airport in New York with $175 left with me. In four years, I’m already staying here, giving you an interview, the owner of a couple businesses. I have cars, I have a dog, I have a horse. I love it here.
FL: Do you miss Kazakhstan?
AY: I don’t miss Kazakhstan. I miss a couple of friends and relatives, and I miss the city where I’m from. Kazakhstan is huge. People are so different. We are from Almaty, the former capital and biggest city in Kazakhstan right now. I absolutely love that place. I miss Almaty. I miss my relatives. But, I don’t miss Kazakhstan. I don’t miss the dictatorship.
FL: Have you connected with other Kazakhstani people in the Flathead Valley through the restaurant?
AY: It’s super cool. Before [Anel] moved here, I thought that I’m the only one. I knew lots of families from Moldova, Ukraine, Russia here, and I didn’t know that other Kazakhstani people exist. Then, we opened the restaurant, and every day somebody’s coming. There’s a lady in Polson, Kazakh from West Kazakhstan. Another lady from Ronan, she’s from East Kazakhstan. Another lady showed up yesterday, and she was from the city where we’re from. This place has kind of helped Kazakhs of the valley to find each other.
I have Anel to speak in our language, or we have many J-1 [visa] students coming in every summer, but those people, they just leave here. Sometimes it’s cool to see some faces like, ‘Oh! My relative best friends now.’
FL: Do have plans to expand Hungry Hun in the future?
AY: We have some goals. We already know our second and third steps.
AT: It’s just the beginning.