Back in the 2000s, Younghwan Kim, the owner of the barbecue restaurant Hahm Ji Bach, put Queens’s Koreatown on the map for thick, sizzling slabs of samgyupsal (pork belly) grilled at the table. The dish came with all the fixings for wraps: lettuce, ssamjang (a spicy, savory sauce of chile and soybean pastes), garlic, and a magnificent array of at least 10 banchan.
Since then, Kim has opened six neighborhood restaurants, cementing Murray Hill as the heart of Koreatown in Queens. This quiet, residential suburb, and in particular 먹자골목 (“Mokja Golmok,” or “Food Alley”), a five-block cluster of Korean restaurants in Murray Hill, is often mistaken for being a part of neighboring Flushing, but it’s its own thing. The trouble is, without an official geographic designation, Koreatown in Queens has shape-shifted, moving east through migration patterns.
As Kim has opened restaurants, he has lobbied in other ways to help the neighborhood, including initiatives involving Open Streets, speaking on local political roundtables, leading national Korean American nonprofits, and founding a local restaurant association. All of his efforts have centered on the Korean immigrants of Murray Hill and Flushing.
“He’s the unofficial mayor of Murray Hill,” says Ahyoung Kim, the director of economic empowerment at the Asian American Federation.
Koreatowns elsewhere in the region have grown in Midtown Manhattan and over in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Down Northern Boulevard in Queens, a commercial presence, too intermittent to be considered a Koreatown, now sprawls through several neighborhoods from eastern Flushing (with a higher concentration in and next to Murray Hill) to Long Island. Murray Hill, however, is seeing decreased foot traffic, with no new immigrants coming in, a higher percentage of aging residents, and locals moving out. In response, Kim’s work has taken on more urgency.
“It’s the last foothold for Korean Americans in Queens,” he says.
New York’s Korean American community is one of the largest in the country, following California and New Jersey. It started back in the 1960s, after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed national-origin quotas that favored European countries, when the Korean immigrant population ballooned from 11,000 in 1960 to 290,000 in 1980.
Fast forward to 1986, when Younghwan Kim, a physical education teacher and swimming coach, left Korea in search of a stable career that would last him through his senior years. He worked at a laundromat in Bayside, Queens; a produce shop in Greenwich, Connecticut; and a deli in Atlanta. In 1999, his sister, who had already started three restaurants, including two Hahm Ji Bach locations in Queens, asked him to return to New York. She had cancer and could no longer manage the restaurants alone.
He took over the Murray Hill Hahm Ji Bach (a few storefronts down from the current location, at the current Ssam Tong space). It was impossible to see the making of Murray Hill’s Food Alley then. “We went to Sunnyside to get a bowl of naengmyeon,” he says. Union Street in downtown Flushing was taking shape as the commercial epicenter of the Korean community.
Business was slow in Murray Hill. Even among Koreans, tableside barbecue in New York hadn’t hit it off just yet, Kim says — “They didn’t want to smell like barbecue.” So he executed a slew of marketing tactics. He put an opaque screen over all the windows so that passersby couldn’t see inside — “Nobody wants to go to an empty restaurant.” And then he lured them with very good service. He tested recipes and dishes, adding customer favorites to the menu (that’s why the menu is so long now), and created a lunch menu for the majority who preferred barbecue for dinner.
Hahm Ji Bach took off. In 2010, it won a food contest and nabbed a Michelin Bib Gourmand that spotlighted Murray Hill.
In 2006, co-owner Kyungsook Bae opened Joong Koog Jip, now a local legend for jjajangmyeon, a popular Korean-Chinese comfort food of noodles in a savory black bean sauce, in the neighborhood. She recalls that Mapo BBQ, Han Joo, Mail Garden, and Hahm Ji Bach were there, but it was in the early-to-mid 2010s, when Korean immigration peaked to 1.1 million in the U.S., that Food Alley was at its golden age.
Hahm Ji Bach’s success showed Kim that he’d nailed the Korean palate — spicy, vegetal, savory with soy sauce, doenjang, and beef and fish stocks simmered for hours. He edged deeper into the everyday Korean lifestyle with a restaurant opening spree: Coffee Factory in 2014 for post-Hahm Ji Bach sweets; Janchi Myeonga for ingredient kits and catering in 2015; and Juk Story that same year, for porridges.
He could have stayed put, juggling his restaurants, and keeping the profits. But he didn’t. As Food Alley grew, he focused on how to continue this momentum. He saw that other Korean enclaves were finding it harder to stay close-knit: Sunnyside, Woodside (home of the first H Mart), Jackson Heights, and downtown Flushing’s Union Street, as the neighborhoods diversified with newer immigrants. He didn’t want the Korean enclave in Murray Hill to disappear, too, leaving the Korean Americans in the area without a central location. And he couldn’t do it alone.
“We have to create solidarity among the restaurateurs here,” he says.
In 2011, he created the Murray Hill Merchants Association, a network of around 30 restaurants that share tips and resources — like when an inspector might be coming, after getting hit with fines for leaving kimchi, which is exempt from certain storage and preparation mandates, out of the refrigerator to ferment for at least a few days.
Between 2015 and 2020, the Korean population in NYC shrunk faster than the city population (down by 5.4 percent, relative to a decrease of 0.6 percent citywide), according to an Asian American Federation report. “No other Asian ethnic group in NYC is shrinking as quickly as the Korean population,” the report reads.
The pandemic exacerbated the decline, with some Koreans moving away from Queens or aging. The share of seniors in the overall Korean population is growing. Compared to other Asian ethnic groups, the Korean population in NYC has the lowest proportion of children under 18 (14.8 percent). Amid booming economic opportunities in Korea and the fears of America’s racism and gun violence, there’s no new blood coming in.
In the past couple of years, the owners of Mapo BBQ and Jeun Ju, a local go-to spot for homestyle foods, unexpectedly died. The partnership behind Han Joo dissolved as two co-owners died, and one became ill. Kum Gang San and Daedong Manor, the go-to spots for big Korean get-togethers, shut down.
But there’s still hope. The owners’ children now run Mapo BBQ and Jeun Ju. And at Han Joo, the last remaining partner, Yongri Jin, has taken over.
“My mom created a wonderful place that, to this day, the customers tell me how the food tastes so good, just like home,” says Jeun Ju’s new owner, Sophia Cho. “It’s very hard. But I’m learning, and I’ve inherited a kitchen staff that’s been here since day one.”
Kim’s rallying cry — about the need to preserve Murray Hill’s Koreatown status — has only gotten louder. In 2020, he opened Mahsil with pandemic-ready Korean-style takeout pizza, and in 2021, Daori for barbecued duck. His message resonated with Ahyoung Kim, who, in 2022, led the opening of the Murray Hill satellite office of the Asian American Federation.
“I came to New York in 2018, and I kept hearing about Union Street,” says Ahyoung. “But I went, and it was just closed storefronts with Korean signs. I wanted to find the kind of restaurants that remind me of home.”
Murray Hill was her answer. And after seeing the neighborhood falter, she’s worked in concert with Younghwan on initiatives including the formation and maintenance of Barton Avenue as part of the Open Streets program, as well as community events like open mic karaoke, movie nights, and a Find Your Seoul tasting press event.
Kim still has new plans for his restaurants. His daughter and son manage two of them, yet on any Sunday, he’s the one who still oversees his restaurants. And he’s still driven to keep the Koreatown of Murray Hill going strong.
“I’m still working not just to make money from my restaurants,” he says, “but I need to keep giving back to the Korean community that’s been supporting me all these years. We have to hold onto this space.”