Korean restaurant Shin La closes, hopes for a new owner

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BRATTLEBORO — Yisoon and Tae Mo Kim came to Brattleboro 37 years ago, eager to get away from the violence and crime of downtown Baltimore. The couple bought a sandwich shop named Anthony's on Elliot Street in downtown Brattleboro, and the rest is culinary history, Brattleboro-style.

The Kims brought Korean cuisine to southeastern Vermont, adding their native country's cooking, item by item, alongside the traditional Italian food which was first featured at Anthony's.

"When we first came to Brattleboro, you couldn't buy tofu in town, or napa cabbage," she said, referring to two staples of Korean cooking. The cooking scene has changed dramatically in the past three decades, as ethnic restaurants sprung up across town. The couple added a sushi day in 1985, and opened a sushi bar in 2000.

But after three years on Elliot Street, the Kims decided to make the move to Main Street, and name their restaurant Shin La, after one of the three historic Korean kingdoms, the couple recalled in a recent interview. It was 37 years of thousands of customers, raising three children, and working grueling hours.

The Kims closed the doors of their popular restaurant on New Year's Eve, ending 37 years of serving yakimandoo (dumplings) or bool ko ki, (marinated thin slices of beef) or bibimbab, a vegetable and rice dish, all seasoned with Korean mainstays of garlic, ginger and scallions, as well as soy sauce, sesame oil and spices. "I also did Japanese," said Yisoon Kim. "Sushi. I do everything. I like to spice it up." The Kims are naturalized citizens of the United States; both were born in Korea and met each other via an arranged marriage.

Tae Mo Kim was a mechanic but developed an allergy to motor oil.

"I thought, 'What can we do?'" Yisoon Kim recalled, and they contacted a business broker, who found them the small Italian restaurant in Brattleboro.

They liked the small town in southern Vermont.

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Most Korean people prefer the city, she said, but they immediately felt at home in Brattleboro.

Her sister runs a Korean restaurant — Manna House in nearby Greenfield, Mass. — which has been in operation for 15 years.

The Kims first put the restaurant up for sale in 2015, looking for "qualified" buyers, and hoping for a smooth transition. But so far such a buyer who would want to continue the Korean and Japanese food, along with the popular sushi bar, hasn't materialized.

Despite the closing, Yisoon Kim was already back in the kitchen, even though the restaurant was closed, making Korean chicken soup for a loyal and devoted customer who had come down with the flu. The chicken soup with rice is very popular, she said. One customer even ordered the soup in the past for her sick cat.

The Kims want to sell the restaurant, and Mrs. Kim is even willing to work with the new owner, passing on her recipes and Korean and Japanese cooking knowledge. But so far, potential deals have fallen through, although she said on Thursday a sale may be close.

At ages 67 and 74, the couple wants to take a permanent break from the demands of running a restaurant, and the 15-hour days that have been normal for decades. Their three children ("they all have Biblical names," she said proudly) are not interested in running the restaurant, however popular. Their son Solomon lives in Brattleboro and works in real estate; their other son Paul works in New York on Wall Street in finance, and daughter Esther works in Manhattan as well, in marketing for cosmetics giant Estee Lauder.

Mr. Kim's health problems have been severe: he is a cancer survivor but still copes with the devastating effects of the disease. He has trouble swallowing and has to be on a liquid diet.

The couple want to take their children to a South Korean resort and have a long family vacation. Coordinating everyone's schedules will probably mean the vacation won't happen for a year, she said. Mrs. Kim said the closure of the restaurant meant that five longtime employees are out of work, but she's hoping it's only temporary. "They have been with us long times," she said. "They want to come back."

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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