In the middle of the pandemic, Mohboob Attaie watches as the Super Bowl replays on the 20-inch television mounted on the wall across from the kitchen of Ali Baba Gyros at 14th and O streets.
The shop is open. The walls are lined with retro posters boasting female models chowing down on Greek sandwiches and framed newspaper headlines of the Husker football glory days. The kitchen is decorated by a huge chunk of lamb meat on a spinning rotisserie and a salad bar of fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber tzatziki sauce and onions.
But there’s few people around.
“I’ve lost around seventy percent of my business,” Attaie said. “It’s only the regulars now. With nobody walking around downtown and none of the bars open, it is very hard.”
The same challenges plaguing Ali Baba have already forced the temporary shutdown man other Lincoln restaurants. But Ali Baba has remained.
Attaie first opened Ali Baba in 1990 with his brother Naqibullah and their nephew Sultan after fleeing Afghanistan in the early 1980s during the Soviet-Afghan War. After getting to the United States, they moved to Lincoln where the most affordable university they could find in hopes of giving their youngest nephew a college education.
“I walked 120 miles over mountains and through deserts to escape the Russians. They had helicopters looking for people; they would have killed us if they had seen us,” Attaie said. “We lived through that. We will be fine after the virus.”
Ever since, Ali Baba has stood as a popular, highly reviewed eatery in downtown Lincoln, garnering a 4.5/5 stars on Yelp. It has also fed some of Nebraska’s most recognizable figures.
“The governor eats here. Tom Osborne used to eat here. If they love the gyros, everyone else must like them too, yes?” Attaie said.
Ali Baba’s only current customers — many regulars whom the Attaies know by name — agree.
“Mohboob is the man,” Ryan Wittler, a UNL senior picking up his takeout order, said. “He is always happy to see us, and he makes damn good gyros.”