The Queen of Queens: S.F. Gets an Online Korean Deli

New York native Clara Lee was frustrated with the lack of authentic Korean food in the Bay Area, so she started her own business, which opens today.

New York native Clara Lee spent much of her youth traveling back and forth to the Asian-American enclave of Flushing, Queens — considered New York City’s second-biggest Chinatown, but an enormous and diverse neighborhood with many other immigrant groups living there.

Her hometown “wasn’t as developed in terms of a Korean scene until I was a little bit older,” she says.

So Queens stuck in her memory. That frustration became more intense after she moved to California. In spite of the Bay Area’s considerable Korean-American population, its strong connection to regional agriculture, and its relative proximity to Los Angeles, Lee was surprised at how hard it was to find authentic ingredients.

Dumplings (Queens SF)

“There are exciting Korean-inspired fusion restaurants,” she says, “and pop-ups around the Bay Area, but I really wanted to share the more traditional foods I had been cooking with the women of my family for as long as I can remember. Foods and flavors my mom and grandma had taught me didn’t really revolve around the food I see around here.”

Like what?

“Fried chicken is a big trend,” she says, “and even Korean barbecue is a pretty recent part of the food culture of Korean because it was much harder to get beef until fairly recently. I want to share the different types of banchan and the variety of fermented food and different types of kimchi — not just Napa cabbage [baichu kimchi].”

Kimchi in particular is much more seasonal and varied than many Americans who aren’t of Korean descent may realize, she says. Upon returning to California after a brief stint back east for graduate school, she began hosting dinners and doing drop-offs for friends, but it wasn’t sufficient. So Lee began Queens SF, an online-only Korean deli that makes its debut today, Feb. 15. 

Taking orders until 11:59 p.m. every Sunday evening, Queens drops off food across San Francisco in two delivery windows on Tuesdays, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. and 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Of course, that doesn’t mean Lee — who operates out of Oakland’s Forage Kitchen — is hustling on Mondays and only Mondays.

“Korean food is a true labor of love,” she says, “so it takes a lot of time.”

Nokdoo bindaetteok (Queens SF)

Marinating and slow-braising means something’s cooking pretty much all the time. You can find lots of wonderful, hard-to-find items on this menu, including nokdoo bindae dduk (savory mung bean pancakes with wild gosare, heritage pork, sprouts, and baechu kimchi) or beoseot deulkkae tang (ground perilla seed with shiitake, oyster, and king trumpet mushrooms, shimeji miushroom soup, and chive).

“In terms of fermented foods, we’ll have three different kimchis for the first week and we’ll be rotating them,” Lee says. “We try to keep it as fresh as possible. I’m not sure how people are going to store in their fridge. Some people like it less sour, so they might consume it immediately. We try to make sure it’s just a little bit not-quite-fermented, just on the cusp of really getting there — so people can experiment on their own and use it the way we want.”

The plan is to expand to the East Bay and South Bay later in the year. But for now, it’s about delighting the palate and exposing people to things they might not know existed.

Korea’s climate “is in some ways very similar to here, so you can find the same vegetables,” Lee says. “That’s super-exciting for me.”

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