At first glance, the compact Harlem shop with a candy cane–striped awning seems like a traditional American bakery, abundant in rows of sugar cookies and slices of red velvet cake. However, among slices of pound cake and sweet potato pie are trays of what 81-year-old Alvin Lee Smalls—who goes by “Mr. Lee” and runs Lee Lee’s Baked Goods—is especially known for: raspberry, apricot, and chocolate rugelach.
Since 1988, Mr. Lee has been turning out his version of the Jewish pastry at 118th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, just blocks from where Malcolm X inspired a generation of activists at one of the most significant mosques in the country, and a few train stops from where Langston Hughes authored some of the most profound contributions to American poetry. (Mr. Lee started baking rugelach professionally on Amsterdam Avenue at Marion Smalls Bakery, his first bakeshop, which was named for his father.) In a city where rugelach is available at practically every turn, Mr. Lee is one of the last bakers who’s still making the pastry the old-fashioned way.
“We use good ingredients, and everything is made by hand,” Mr. Lee tells AFAR. “It’s why people have continued coming to see us.”
For centuries, rugelach, an Ashkenazi Jewish pastry, has been served in homes and bakeries throughout Eastern Europe, where families passed down recipes for the doughy cookie filled with dried fruit and nuts, jams, chocolate, cinnamon, and more. Chefs largely bake rugelach in two styles: in a croissantlike crescent or in cookie rounds with swirled strokes, like the version Mr. Lee serves at his bakery.
Mr. Lee first came across the recipe for rugelach in 1964 while flipping through a newspaper. Born in South Carolina, the baker moved to New York in 1962 and worked in kitchen roles for 29 years at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. At the hospital, he worked with patients who were sugar-free and gluten-free; after work, he tinkered with recipes at home to improve their flavor. Rugelach continued to intrigue him, and he adapted another newspaper recipe into a city-celebrated cookie that caught the attention of New York Times food reporter Julia Moskin in 2008.
Mr. Lee explained the frustrations that drove his search for the perfect rugelach all those years ago: Traditional Jewish and German bakeries were closing, and if he wanted the flaky, perfectly crumbly confection, he would have to do it himself. Since then, the baker has started each morning at 5:30 to prepare fresh-baked rugelach for customers. Mr. Lee is one of the last commercial bakers in New York who makes rugelach using butter instead of vegetable shortening, reminiscent of Jewish and Eastern European bakeries of New York’s 19th and 20th centuries. (Using butter is more laborious and complex.)
Lovingly describing her husband as “a real baking nerd,” Mr. Lee’s wife, Kellyn Tillers Smalls, extols his work ethic.
“He lives, breathes, eats, talks about, dreams about, is always excited [about] and interested in all things baking. Where he is right now is in the bakery,” she tells me on a brutally cold New York winter day. “He’s in the bakery every single day.”
Native New Yorker and Court Street Grocers baker Larry Finkelstein remembers that his parents had a bakery they’d rely on when they needed to purchase a gift for a hostess; Finkelstein recalls the heyday of rugelach, when bakeries in the Upper West Side and Brooklyn sold them daily. Mr. Lee, Finkelstein says, provides a taste of that nostalgia.
“I felt an affinity to this guy,” Finkelstein says of Lee Lee’s, which he’s visited for several decades. “He’s such an important fixture. He’s keeping that kind of flavor and presence alive.”
Harlem residents also speak of Mr. Lee’s love of the people in the community around him. Matchless rugelach has earned him recognition in the baking world, but “what sets Lee Lee’s apart,” says neighborhood resident and chef Marcus Samuelsson, “is the level of dignity Mr. Smalls gives to every guest. He listens to every person who walks through the door and makes the experience so personal, and so delicious.”
Lee Lee’s Bakery sits on Harlem’s Restaurant Row, home to highly regarded restaurants preparing African American cuisine, like soulful restaurant Melba’s and Caribbean-rooted locale LoLo’s Seafood Shack. But Mr. Lee is friends with many of those local restaurant owners and is a fixture in the neighborhood, a testament to his significance in Harlem. For many residents, Lee Lee’s presence is symbolic of the international culture embedded in the area—and of its culinary offerings. Soul food, a cornerstone of African American dining, remains central to Harlem’s restaurant scene, but toothsome bowls of ramen, seafood-laden Spanish tapas, and an established group of Italian eateries join Lee Lee’s in satisfying the cosmopolitan tastes of an ever-evolving and perennially diverse population.
“People have come to visit us from some excellent places, and people come from right around here, too,” said Mr. Lee, talking about travelers from Latin America and the Middle East and of the elderly Black residents who’ve lived in Harlem for decades. “And it’s because we’ve stuck to the recipe. We’ve stuck to what works.”
The dough, encrusted with sugar crystals, has a palpable chew. The fruit is not overly sugared, allowing the natural sweetness of the fruit to shine. And while Mr. Lee is understandably mum on the recipe, he cites it as an impenetrable guide to his success. He never deviates, never sways from the original.
“When you bake with good ingredients—good butter, cream, cheese—everything comes together,” he says.
The small bakehouse is charming and quaint, and on the walls where one might expect to see advertisements or menus, Smalls displays book covers, pamphlets, and photos of notable figures. While waiting for my goods one afternoon, I gazed at the cover of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and writing from the NAACP. Harlem is, at its core, a place for African American celebration, expansive thought, and dreams of a sweeter world. What better way to experience it than with a bite of buttery, flaky dough?
“You’ve got to come see us at least once,” Mr. Lee says. “And then come and see us again.”
Rugelach from Lee Lee’s Baked Goods is available for local delivery in Manhattan, as well as by USPS Priority Mail across the United States. The bakery is open every day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., except on Sundays, when it is open from noon to 5 p.m.