Around the first part of 2012, the big question around town more pressing than which Republican candidate would eventually take the presidential nomination was what happened to Harry's Deli. The 2-year-old, office-park sandwich shop that bucked all logic and built up a cult-like following in a nowhere spot directly beneath the flight path of roaring John Wayne Airport-bound planes was suddenly and unceremoniously shuttered. Where was Harrison Kho? Where was his wife, Mercy? What happened to the wonderful sandwiches and hand-whipped mayo?
Turns out Harry had more serious issues to deal with. Mercy's pregnancy had some unforeseen complications, resulting in their second child being born three months premature at only 3 pounds, 6 ounces. Baby Abigail spent nearly two months in the natal intensive care unit, so the Khos visited her daily. The sandwiches would have to wait. “She was our main priority at the time,” Harry says.
But as the months went by and Abigail grew stronger, Kho tried to figure out his next move with the deli. The least he could do was remodel. The old space he inherited from Sky Park Deli was already worn out when he took it over in 2010, and there were barely any seats to accommodate the legions of fans that would choke up their doorway by noon.
“I was thinking about shutting it down and working on other concepts,” he said. But it ultimately came down to financing and timing. They struggled to find someone willing to help, and when they did, the relationship didn't work out. Halfway through the remodel, they had to get another backer.
Looking back, he admits that 2012 was a trying and difficult year, but he learned a lot in the process. “By the grace of God and the good heart and belief of my current partner, we made it happen,” said Kho. The deli finally reopened last October with exposed ducts, corrugated metal walls and, most important, more seats. Irvine got its best sandwich shop back, and now there were even burgers and fries on the menu.
Taking stock of where he is now, Kho remembers telling friends in high school that he was going to open a deli such as this someday. It didn't happen right away. The 1998 graduate of Villa Park High School admits he was impulsive. “I was the 'yes' man. Want to take a road trip to pick up a friend at college? Sure!”
After high school and earning enough credits to transfer to Cal State Fullerton, he decided to take a sales job at a Honda dealer in Rancho Santa Margarita instead. The money was great for a 20-year-old. But it wasn't until he opened his deli that Kho found his purpose in life: “I was put on this earth to feed people.”
Still, he remembers the opening day as intense. “It was just me and my parents at the deli at first,” he says. “Neither of [them] had restaurant experience, so we were all just a bunch of noobs fumbling around. . . . I remember sending tickets back to my dad in chicken scratch. He would look at the ticket, look at me, look at the ingredients, and get red in the face.”
But Kho persevered, and as word got out that there was this crazy-passionate young Korean dude making unbelievably great sandwiches with homemade mayo, he prospered. These days, he has gotten so busy taking care of the business end of things, he doesn't have a chance to do too much actual cooking.
“Once in a while, I'll help the guys out in the back by making some mayo,” Kho says. “I'm actually contemplating hiring someone to run my business so I could just cook every day. I could spend all day in the kitchen without burning out.”
Let's hope he does. No one wants to see Harry's Deli close ever again.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.