A year after launching as an online delivery version of a neighborhood Korean deli, Queens is becoming the kind of brick-and-mortar store that inspired it. Partners Clara Lee and Eddo Kim are moving into a small space 1235 9th Avenue on a busy Inner Sunset business strip, where they hope to open Queens as a “superette” this summer.
Lee and Kim met in the education field, but founded Queens to scratch their own personal itch for classic Korean deli fare — food more easily found in Los Angeles and New York than San Francisco, where the couple counts just two Korean grocers.
“We really want to pay respect to the immigrant grocery store we grew up having our parents and our uncles run,” says Lee. Queens is named partially for the heavily Korean borough of Lee’s native New York, and partially for Lee’s mother and grandmother, her own personal royalty. But your grandmother’s deli Queens is not.
“We can present this new phase of cool Korean products that are out there [along with] the very staple stuff we grew up eating,” says Lee. Think bottles of artisanal Korean soju and microbrews (for consumption off premises, as they don’t have a liquor license).
Lee and Kim started off last year using commissary space at Oakland’s Forage Kitchen, from which they began fulfilling online deliveries for banchan and stews through their own website. Next, they graduated to pop-ups, serving meals at Birba wine bar in particular. They even travelled to Korea and returned to cook with ingredients like dried radish greens and fermented squid.
Now, the new space will consolidate Lee and Kim’s efforts: Formerly the vegetarian cafe Daily Health, 1235 9th Avenue is long and narrow, calling to mind a New York bodega. Lee and Kim will line the shelves with dry goods and pantry staples and stock the fridges with prepackaged foods. Meanwhile, a full kitchen will turn out daily specials. At Queens’ pop-up, dishes have included bindaeduk (mung bean pancakes), spicy dweji bulgogi, and kimchi dumplings in brisket broth.
To source proper Korean produce, Lee and Kim are working directly with local farmers, who are planting summer squash like meot jaeng i ae, chamoe (Korean melon), perilla leaves, and chonggak mu (a radish) expressly for Queens.
“We’re super stoked about collaborating with these local Asian American farmers and working together to increase access to unique Korean crops and heirloom Asian vegetable varieties,” says Lee.
And for those who don’t already crave Korean grocery goods because they didn’t grown up with them, the team proposes an educational component to Queens. “We want everyone to try all the stuff there, and learn about the process and the traditions of Korean food,” says Kim.
Progress at the Superette is proceeding apace: Kim says he was “pleasantly surprised” by how helpful city hall has been. “We didn’t go through this hellish experience, so we feel fortunate about that — but obviously there’s a lot more work to be done.”