Japantown’s New Korean-Inspired Bakery Is Spreading the Gospel of Kalbijjim Croissants

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A square croissant topped with meat and charred, melted cheese.
Jina Bakes' most famous item is its Korean-inspired kalbijjim croissant. (Jina Bakes)

When pastry chef Jina Kim first collaborated with Daeho Kalbijjim & Beef Soup earlier this year to create a croissant version of the restaurant’s runaway hit kalbijjim short rib stew, she’d hoped that the pastries would be a success. After all, Daeho’s spicy-sweet, delightfully cheesy version of the Korean classic had become one of the most sought after dishes in San Francisco. What Kim didn’t necessarily anticipate, however, was that a half year after their debut, the kalbijjim croissants would have a dedicated following all their own—that customers would line up for an hour at Kim’s Japantown bakery, Jina Bakes, and, in some cases, snatch up a dozen of the meaty pastries in one fell swoop.

Make no mistake: The kalbijjim croissants are poised to become the next big thing in the Bay Area pastry world. And now, Kim is ready to introduce local pastry lovers to her whole lineup of other creative Korean- and Japanese-inflected treats. 

A line of customers waits outside of a bakery; the sign above reads "jina bakes."
The line of customers during Jina Bakes' soft opening weekend. (Jina Bakes)

After a year of pandemic takeout boxes, construction delays and occasional in-person pop-ups, Jina Bakes finally opened its Japan Center storefront in late August. The bakery has been in “soft opening” mode on weekends only for the past two weeks, limiting both its hours of operation and the number of pastries that customers can purchase at one time. Starting next week, the shop will be open on Fridays as well, with the goal, Kim says, of eventually opening five days a week.

A square croissant topped with stretchy Korean rice cake dusted with roasted soybean poweder.
The injeolmi croissant is inspired by one of the pastry chef's favorite Korean treats. (Christine Yoo)

Customers who have been buying Jina Bakes’ pastries since the early days of the pandemic already know the bakery has a lot more to offer beyond its signature item. Prior to starting her business, Kim’s background had primarily been in French and Japanese pastry, but the wild, unexpected success of the kalbijjim croissant emboldened her to create other pastries that reflect her own heritage. “I started wanting to do more Korean things,” Kim says. 

For now, she’s added one additional Korean item inspired by injeolmi, a kind of sweet Korean sweet rice cake that was always Kim’s favorite special occasion treat. At Jina Bakes, she makes the rice cakes in-house, cuts them into squares and bakes them on top of square croissants, dusting the injeolmi afterwards with powdered sugar and roasted soybean powder. The best thing about these injeolmi croissants, Kim says, is that the rice cakes are wonderfully stretchy when they’re warm, so you get that gooey “cheese pull” effect that many Koreans and Korean Americans admire. (It’s part of the kalbijjim croissant’s appeal as well—and one of the reasons the bakery has a dedicated oven for reheating pastries.)

Three coffee drinks on a countertop, variously topped with whipped cream and honeycomb toffee candy.
A lineup of the bakery's signature coffee drinks, including the Einspänner (left) and the honeycomb toffee latte (center). (Jina Bakes)

Other staples on the opening menu include a more traditionally French croissant, chocolate croissant and kouign-amann, plus a variety of cream puffs that feature Japanese flavors like matcha, hojicha and black sesame. It’s a pastry-heavy lineup for now, but Kim says she eventually wants to do more cakes and desserts, including individual-portion cakes—pound cakes, cheesecake slices and more.

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With COVID concerns still very much front of mind, Jina Bakes won’t yet open up its indoor seating area. But eventually it should offer the kind of experience you’d expect at one of Seoul’s many stylish cafes, right down to the distinctly Korean coffee offerings. For instance, one of Kim’s honeycomb toffee latte is an iced latte that features chunks of housemade dalgona, a kind of Korean toffee that looks like pieces of honeycomb. (The trendy whipped coffee drink called “dalgona coffee” that went viral on Korean TikTok and Instagram during the early stages of the pandemic was named after its resemblance to the dalgona candy. “This is the real dalgona coffee,” Kim says.) 

The bakery will also serve Einspänners, affogato-like espresso drinks topped with loads of whipped cream. Viennese in origin, the drinks are highly popular in South Korea right now, Kim says.

Although Japan Center food businesses—and Japantown as a whole—have struggled during the pandemic, Kim did steady business with her biweekly “quarantine boxes” all through the most difficult months of the shutdown. Indeed, part of the reason she hasn’t been able to extend her hours yet is because she keeps selling out too quickly—after just two hours each day during the bakery’s first weekend of business.

For her part, Kim says she’s been pleasantly surprised by the turnout and, especially, the wide range of customers who have shown up and stood in line to buy her pastries: “I was like, ‘Oh, how did they know about me?’”

Jina Bakes is located on the first floor of Japan Center West, at 1581 Webster Street, Ste. 150, in San Francisco. During its soft opening period, it’s open Saturdays and Sundays only (and Fridays, starting on Sept. 17), 10am–2pm (or until sold out).