New Orleanians seeking the town’s finest king cake usually journey down Chef Menteur Freeway till they hit what seems to be to be an unusual, nondescript car parking zone. However alongside it sits one of many metropolis’s most extraordinary bakeries.
The silhouette of Dong Phuong Bakery & Restaurant at 14207 Chef Menteur Freeway — its title emblazoned atop the institution in vivid letters, each English and Vietnamese — confirms to guests that they’ve arrived. Throughout Carnival season, they’ve to affix the queue of consumers lining the size of the constructing earlier than they get their arms on a coveted field of the bakery’s king cake.
In a metropolis the place eating places usually rise and fall, a bakery based by South Vietnamese refugees within the early Eighties succeeded in elevating New Orleans’s status as probably the greatest meals cities on the planet — and positioned the ingenuity and resilience of its Vietnamese neighborhood firmly within the highlight. Dong Phuong, as New Orleanians understand it now, was constructed over 4 many years by three generations of a single household. Though the enterprise first began as a haven for the Vietnamese neighborhood, members of the Tran household contributed to its explosive reputation, one recipe at a time: Huong Tran’s mooncakes, De Tran’s bánh mì baguettes, and the household’s king truffles that ultimately earned them nationwide recognition.
At this time, the bakery sells a number of flavors of its buttery brioche king truffles, together with almond, coconut, pecan, cinnamon, and cream cheese — the latter its hottest. Dong Phuong’s model eschews king cake custom: Its layered, smooth dough is folded, not braided, and the truffles, whereas flatter than some, will not be dense. They’re ring-less, which means extra cake to get pleasure from, and are available with out the plastic child. The frivolously whipped frosting is airier and much less candy than many others on the town. A January 2024 story from The Washington Submit experiences that the bakery sells someplace within the vary of 60,000 truffles, every taking three days to finish, throughout Carnival season. They’ve gained a lot acclaim that Dong Phuong even limits the variety of truffles allowed per buyer for preorders and walk-ins.
“For 2 months out of the 12 months, we’ve got individuals who’ve by no means stepped foot in New Orleans East come out,” Linh Garza, Dong Phuong’s president and De and Huong Tran’s daughter, says. However that wasn’t at all times the case for the restaurant, which operated with the identical title beneath completely different possession earlier than the Tran household purchased and re-established it in 1981. The bakery opened shortly after in 1982. The brief story is that this: Garza’s grandmother, Lieng Tran, then employed by Dong Phuong — one of many space’s solely Vietnamese eating places on the time — discovered a chance to purchase the enterprise together with her household and did so, retaining its authentic title.
However the household’s journey to New Orleans truly started in 1978, when Garza, then one 12 months previous, and her relations fled Việt Nam to flee the warfare. Throughout their preliminary keep at a Malaysian refugee camp, her household utilized to reside in a number of nations, together with Australia, Canada, and the U.S. Her father’s childhood buddy, who resided in New Orleans, sponsored the household, they usually resettled in New Orleans East within the late Seventies, constructing a brand new residence amongst its Vietnamese diasporic neighborhood. The majority of that inhabitants initially gravitated towards the suburb’s Versailles neighborhood or West Jefferson, in accordance with the Louisiana Folklife Program.
In 1975, the U.S. Catholic Convention and its dioceses all through Louisiana began serving to among the refugees resettle within the Pelican State. New Orleans East largely hosted the newcomers due to the provision of housing constructed within the Nineteen Sixties for the realm’s Nationwide Aeronautics and Area Administration presence, in accordance with the American Historic Affiliation. Vietnamese refugees in Louisiana predominantly hailed from northern Việt Nam — extra particularly, the township of Phát Diệm and the Roman Catholic diocese of Bùi Chu.
Rising up within the Versailles space in New Orleans, Garza felt extra carefully related to her Vietnamese tradition than Crescent Metropolis traditions: celebrating Tết, or Lunar New Yr, and the Mid-Autumn Competition inside her neighborhood. Louisiana supplied some parallels to Việt Nam, with its outstanding fishing and shrimping industries, scorching and humid local weather, and the colonial remnants of the French language scattered all through the state and within the metropolis itself. However its quintessential customs, like Mardi Gras, second strains, and gumbo, had been notably absent from her childhood in New Orleans East, which is positioned on the outskirts of the town — a couple of half hour drive from the French Quarter.
As her dad and mom labored to make a dwelling, Garza’s mom, Huong, would lean on recollections of her personal father’s bakery in Việt Nam and bake conventional pastries, reminiscent of mooncakes, of their shotgun home to promote at native grocery shops. When Garza’s grandmother, Lieng, was approached by then-owners of Dong Phuong with the provide to purchase their enterprise, she prayed on it for days earlier than shifting ahead with the deal. “It was an enormous danger for us on the time,” Garza says.
After Garza’s household purchased the restaurant in 1981, they’d use its kitchen to bake after hours. Whereas Huong continued delivering to neighborhood Asian markets, De shipped packages of mooncakes to prospects nationwide from an electronics retailer owned by his buddy. (“They had been attempting all the pieces,” Garza says.) Throughout the day, the restaurant saved the household even busier. Far more common than the bakery again then, prospects frequented it for conventional Vietnamese household meals and noodle soups.
In 1982, they opened their retail bakery in the identical constructing. Garza’s father made a culinary breakthrough that boosted enterprise within the early Nineties: a French bread recipe for bánh mì baguettes. “Earlier than that, we had been nonetheless making fairly conventional pastries and desserts that, exterior of our neighborhood, no one actually knew about or cared to attempt,” Garza says. “[But] who doesn’t like French bread, particularly in New Orleans?”
Round that point, Garza, a center schooler, began working at Dong Phuong, serving to on the register and within the retail store. She lent a hand to the small employees, made up of about 15 workers, because the Tran household grew their enterprise steadily over the following twenty years.
However in 2004, grief rocked the household when De Tran handed away. Within the wake of his dying, the function of firm president ultimately handed on to Garza. She was nonetheless reeling from the loss when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005.
The storm struck within the weeks main as much as the Mid-Autumn Competition, thought-about prime mooncake season to many, together with the Trans. Garza didn’t need to evacuate earlier than the hurricane made landfall and depart behind unshipped containers of baked items. Nonetheless, her household finally determined to journey to Dallas to stick with her sister — a short lived plan that might final for months. From a tv set in Texas, they watched as information channels broadcasted the devastation in New Orleans. Throughout these weeks, they didn’t know what occurred to their residence in close by Slidell or to Dong Phuong, which sat vacant through the storm and its aftermath.
Upon their return within the late fall, they assessed the harm. The bakery and restaurant had flooded, with no electrical energy, operating water, or close by companies open to hurry alongside the rapid space’s restoration. Garza’s household was confronted with a choice: reopen the enterprise or shutter its doorways for good. Finally, they selected the previous, however with the constructing’s roof broken and its space for storing demolished, it took weeks of labor to get Dong Phuong up and operating once more. Contractors had been in brief provide, so the Trans needed to discover ways to perform most of the restaurant’s required repairs themselves. For her half, Garza painted and took part in minor development work.
Dong Phuong reopened in January 2006 promoting only one product: bánh mì baguettes. However as one of many few bakeries to come back again, neighbors — largely anxious and scared — rejoiced nonetheless on the indicators of rebuilding.
Over the following two years, the enterprise step by step recovered. A couple of prospects inside the Vietnamese neighborhood started to ask Huong Tran if she would ever bake and promote king truffles. Huong tried out completely different variations, whereas Garza taste-tested different king truffles available in the market to provide her mom concepts. As soon as relations and mates gave their stamp of approval on a recipe, the household offered their king truffles for the primary time in 2008. However they weren’t a right away phenomenon, and Huong would proceed to tinker with the recipe each Carnival season. Garza says that, at first, information of Dong Phuong’s king cake unfold slowly, “simply by phrase of mouth.”
She described their massive break as an article revealed within the Instances-Picayune newspaper about Dong Phuong king truffles within the mid-2010s. Prospects from exterior of New Orleans East began stopping by, and distributors labored with the enterprise to promote truffles all through the town. By 2018, the king truffles’ reputation erupted. That 12 months, the James Beard Basis awarded Dong Phuong with its American Basic award, securing the New Orleans bakery a spot on the nation’s culinary map.
Along with king truffles, patrons can nonetheless purchase Dong Phuong classics like its conventional mooncakes and bao. The bakery’s pastry choice consists of croissants, Danish twists, and cream puffs, priced at $3 every. Bread lovers can absorb greater than the enterprise’s famend baguette, with 7-inch pistolettes, milk bread, coconut rolls, and cream buns on the menu. Candy seekers are additionally in luck — a prolonged checklist of desserts spans from fruit tarts and flan to mochi and Chinese language wafers. Dong Phuong takes orders for truffles of all sizes to have a good time particular events, which might include customary fillings or premium choices, like recent coconut and durian.
The restaurant and bakery weathered its newest problem in 2020 through the top of the COVID-19 pandemic. Garza says that the 12 months’s Mardi Gras season had simply wrapped, and he or she’d held a crawfish boil for her workers proper earlier than outbreaks started. “Our employees was anxious,” Garza says. “We might see all people was anxious.”
That March, Dong Phuong shuttered its enterprise operations quickly, however its workforce tried artistic alternate options to maintain its prospects fed and staff employed. The restaurant and bakery arrange a walk-up window for just a few days earlier than ultimately turning to on-line ordering and curbside pickup. As soon as the COVID-19 vaccines turned accessible to the general public, enterprise began to return to its regular degree. “We sort of mustered by,” Garza says.
Dong Phuong counts as one touchstone of New Orleans’s broader Vietnamese neighborhood, which has made an indelible imprint on the town’s cultural tapestry, Garza says. A lot has modified since her childhood. Now, “you may go anyplace and see a phở restaurant or a bánh mì store,” together with Mint Trendy Vietnamese on Freret Road and Lilly’s Cafe on Journal Road, she says. She’s watched New Orleans come to embrace Vietnamese tradition and others as extra immigrant populations, together with Hondurans and Guatemalans, forge new lives and develop their communities in The Massive Straightforward.
This Carnival season, enterprise is booming at Dong Phuong, even within the wake of some January manufacturing hiccups. When Garza arrives to begin her day, New Orleanians are already gathered exterior, with a line forming as early as 7 a.m. In 2024, the road stretches longer, and the workforce is saved busier than earlier than, however Garza stays assured of their capability to feed each mouth anticipating a chew of the bakery’s king cake.
“Yearly, we get somewhat bit higher,” she says.