Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill is full of exotic eateries. Wafts of curry float on the breeze; signs advertise sushi and sashimi. With so many enticing smells and sights coming at you, it's easy to walk right past a tiny bakery -- but Sumi's Cakery is not to be missed.
Sumi Chun is moving swiftly around the room that comprises her Korean bakery, placing fragrant baskets of her favorite buttercream pastries ($1.50) onto the shelves that line one wall. As soon as I introduce myself, she offers me coffee or water or something to eat.
Inside the refrigerator case, cakes intricately frosted with whipped cream, as is traditional with Korean baked goods, and dusted with matcha green tea or strawberry powder seem to smile enticingly. Fat cupcakes decorated with fresh strawberries and other simple touches squat contentedly in rows, begging to be devoured.
As I wait for Sumi's daughter Sonya to arrive and interpret (I speak no Korean and Sumi speaks limited English), the sweet, yeasty smell of baking bread comes from the kitchen at the back and one of Sumi's friends and employees is methodically wrapping red bean buns, a savory-sweet combination of pureed red beans and sugar wrapped in substantial pastry dough ($3).
When Sonya, 22, comes through the door with her bicycle, she tells me that Sumi started baking cakes at home about 10 years ago to give to friends as holiday and birthday presents. She loves to cook and had been craving Korean baked goods and cakes but couldn't find any for sale in Pittsburgh.
Sumi and her family moved to America from Seoul, South Korea, nearly 20 years ago. Last year, Sumi went back to Seoul and spent a month at a cooking school learning to make yeast breads and other delicacies.
Sumi's years-long dream of owning a bakery finally was realized this March. The space is not far from the dry cleaning business owned and operated by Sumi's husband, Jun.
Surprisingly, the women say, the bakery's clientele is mostly Chinese, though they do have their fair share of Korean and American customers. Regardless of ethnicity, everyone is asking for the coffee buns ($1.50), sweet potato cupcakes ($2.50) and sweet chestnut loaves (prices vary).
Korean-style baked goods are very different from their American or French counterparts. Typically they are topped with a simple whipped cream frosting that is only very lightly sweetened. Pastries themselves are rarely very sweet and most Korean bakeries offer at least one savory option, as well. On this day, Sumi's offered a veggie and sausage bun ($3). Sumi uses no butter in her pastries, as she feels the flavor pairs poorly with the whipped cream frosting.
The baking begins between 6 and 7 a.m. every morning, and continues throughout the day. Sumi and her employees, who occasionally include Sonya and her youngest daughter, Bonnie, bake 200 to 250 pastries every day and a dozen each of the cupcakes. They also bake a limited number of full-size cakes daily, and Sumi says they sell incredibly quickly, especially on Saturdays -- their busiest day.
Though she likes the way the bakery is now, in the future Sumi sees additions to the menu in the form of new pastries as well as lunch.
Sumi is lucky that she no longer has to satisfy her cake cravings by slaving away in her home kitchen. The customers are plentiful and Korean baked goods seem to be catching on. As Sonya said, "She seems a lot happier now."
Sumi's Cakery, 2119 Murray Ave., 412-422-2253, sumiscakery.com (coming soon).
Jessica Suss: firstname.lastname@example.org.