“Hello, my friend.”
This is how Harrison Jwa Hoon Kim greets all his regular customers at the compact New York Bakery on West 29th Street. But don’t let the name fool you. Kim isn’t slinging baked breads, muffins or cakes. Instead he and his wife, Young Shin Han Kim, are dishing out spicy chile de árbol salsa, crispy puffy potato tacos, enchiladas doused in salsa verde or rojo, fully packed and expertly wrapped burritos, deep and intense mole and many more Mexican classics.
The pair immigrated to New York from Kasa, South Korea, 12 years ago and have owned and operated New York Bakery ever since.
The hidden gem of a lunch spot, located up one flight of stairs inside a nondescript three-story building near Sixth Avenue, is especially dear to those of us here at Food Republic and Zero Point Zero Production — so much so that it was a spoken rule that we wouldn’t feature it in any of our works for fear of it getting too popular. We now realize that this rule may have backfired, as the future of the New York Bakery now appears quite grim. Kim’s lease is up at the end of May, and the entire building is expected to be demolished and rebuilt.
What will become of our beloved little hole-in-the-wall? “I’m not sure,” Kim says.
“This was my first job in America,” Kim and his wife say one after another.
Making and selling Mexican food wasn’t the initial plan for the Kims; it just made sense at the time. In 2004, the Manhattan neighborhood now known as NoMad was home to many Mexican people. The New York Bakery, which at the time was an actual bakery that had been around 25 years prior to Kim buying it, hadn’t seen great business for a long time.
“So I thought, why don’t I make this a Spanish restaurant?” Kim says. “But I didn’t know how to make Mexican food. One day, a Mexican lady come in here and said, ‘I’ll cook for you!'”
From Isabel, the Mexican lady, the Kims learned both Spanish and how to cook hearty, delicious crave-worthy Mexican dishes that have customers piling in and lining up out the door every day. Young Shin is currently the chef of establishment, but Kim says everyone they’ve employed in the past has been Mexican. About six months in, business had not quite taken off, but it gradually grew, serving up to 70 people during lunch service after a year, which was a lot for the small, humble shop. According to Kim, most of the clientele were Latino until recent years.
Kim, who makes his home in Bayside, Queens, with his wife and two sons, Bu Jung and Tae Hung Kim, says the restaurant has occupied most of his time.
“My home, here, my home, here, every day, every day, for 12 years,” he tells Food Republic.
However, when Kim isn’t slinging Mexican food, he’s practicing the electric bass and singing with his Christian Korean rock band, Noah’s Ark. One of the band members happens to be a friend of Kim’s from Korea. They had lost touch and both emigrated to America, where they bumped into each other in New York. Noah’s Ark currently has one album and will be performing at the Flushing Town Hall on June 5.
As business steadily grows, rent and produce costs also rise. An article on the NYC website Gothamist featured the Bakery recently, which sent a surge of customers to the tiny spot. But Kim says the uptick only lasted about a month before the hype died down and they were back to the usual trickle of regulars.
Things continue to look grim for the neighborhood favorite. The good news: Although his lease is up on May 31, Kim’s landlord has told him he can continue to operate on a month-to-month basis until demolition begins, and he’s been promised a space in which to reopen once a new building is constructed, he says. The bad news: It could take two years or more before the new building is inhabitable, and Kim isn’t sure he will be able to afford the new shop if the rent rises. If things don’t pan out with the new building, Kim could always open elsewhere, but he hasn’t even started looking for a new space.
With the future uncertain, Manhattanites and other fans of good Mexican food would be wise to stop by Kim’s terrific restaurant very, very soon.
New York Bakery, 51 W. 29th St., New York, NY; 212-741-8324