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The King Cake Triumph Of A Vietnamese Bakery In New Orleans

Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 21/22, a collection of interviews with leading voices in dining, hospitality, food, tech, politics and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2021, or what’s likely to happen in 2022, in the world of restaurants and food. See all stories here. And feel free to check out last year’s collection as well.

Linh Tran Garza is president of Dong Phuong Bakery in the Versailles neighborhood of New Orleans East—home to a large Vietnamese community since the 1970s. She runs the bakery with her mother, Huong Tran, who founded Dong Phuong with her husband De in 1982. Dong Phuong was named one of the best banh mi makers in the United States by The New York Times Magazine. In 2018, the bakery was recognized by the James Beard Foundation with an America’s Classics award.

People think of Dong Phuong as traditional. That’s partly true. This upcoming year will be our 40th serving New Orleans, and we definitely embrace our history. But tradition isn’t the whole story. We’re also innovators. After all, to travel across an ocean and over a continent to start a new life, you have to be entrepreneurial. My family is from Vietnam. Our story is a story of refugees. In our case, we were fleeing war-torn Vietnam in the late-1970s.

My parents met long before that, though. My mother, Huong, worked at her parents’ bakery and coffee shop in Vietnam. She first learned to bake there from her father. My dad, De, drank more coffee than water, so he was at the shop all the time. They fell in love.

When my father left to fight for South Vietnam in what Americans call the Vietnam War, he and my mother exchanged letters. The letters continued when he was captured by the North Vietnamese and imprisoned after the war. When he was finally released, he returned to her. They attempted to start a life together in Vietnam, but the communists were forcing everyone to become farmers, and my parents decided to leave with me and my brother. I was just six months old.

Forming king cake dough at Dong Phuong Bakery in New Orleans. Photo: Randy Krause Schmidt, from ‘The Big Book of King Cake.’

My parents say the journey to America was difficult. They had to bribe officials so we could even get on a boat. The boat was heading to Malaysia, and we were robbed by pirates along the way. When the boat arrived, the Malaysian government said there was no room for us, but my father and some of the other men jumped into the water and pulled the boat ashore anyway. We stayed in a crowded refugee camp there for a year.

That’s when my father’s best friend contacted my dad and told him he could sponsor us to join him in a place called New Orleans.

We arrived with nothing. We didn’t know English. We had no money. My brother and I were the first Vietnamese kids at our school, and we got made fun of quite a bit. Our classmates would tell us we ate dogs and cats, which was hurtful as a child wanting to be accepted. I was nervous to bring in food from home because I didn’t want to get made fun of more. Even though I loved my mom’s cooking, I’d just get the typical cheeseburger and pizza so I could fit in. I still think about how I wish I was braver back then.

But being an immigrant in a new place often requires courage on a daily basis. My parents showed that through the same sacrifice and entrepreneurial spirit so many immigrants exhibit. My dad wanted to be an engineer, but he was now stocking groceries at a supermarket. My mom wanted to be a banker, but she did some seamstress work and made these little cakes and pastries that she’d bring to local markets to sell.

Even though we went to a school with mostly white children, our community was made up of recently arrived Vietnamese refugees like us. Naturally, they wanted a taste of home. My mother’s baking gave them that, and she became very popular.

Photo: Randy Krause Schmidt, from ‘The Big Book of King Cake.’

That’s what led to Dong Phuong opening in 1982. At first, our popularity was specifically among the city’s Vietnamese immigrants. Over the years, however, we’ve been embraced by New Orleans more generally. The kind of discrimination other Asian-Americans have reported facing—particularly since the pandemic—isn’t something we’ve had to deal with. Maybe it’s because we’re a 25-minute drive from downtown, and that’s a long way to travel to demean someone. But more likely, I think it’s because there’s a feeling we’ve added something to the city’s food scene in our four decades here.

One item that helped popularize us was our king cake. The cake is served in New Orleans beginning on January 6th—also known as Epiphany and Twelfth Night—until Mardi Gras in February. The pastry is round, often shaped like a crown to honor the Three Kings who brought the baby Jesus gifts. It’s topped with icing and sugar dyed purple, green, and gold, like the three colors of Mardi Gras. A tiny plastic baby is hidden inside the cake and, according to tradition, whoever receives the slice with the baby is tasked with buying the next king cake.

King cake tradition in New Orleans stretches back centuries. But when the Vietnamese first arrived here, it wasn’t really a tradition we took part in. As families put down roots, however, and children went to school with New Orleans-born classmates, we slowly embraced local customs. In January and February, that meant king cake. In New Orleans schools, a king cake is brought into school nearly every Friday leading up to Mardi Gras. When it was your turn to bring in the king cake, you wanted to bring a good one.

While other children desperately wanted to find the baby, I was fearful of it. The only king cakes in our neighborhood were a few grocery store options that weren’t very good. I knew what it was like to not fit in, and I wasn’t eager for a bad cake to be another reason why.

By the time I was working at Dong Phuong as an adult, we decided we didn’t want the next generation of children in our community to feel that same way. We wanted them to have a king cake they could feel proud of, but also one that fit our tastes. Instead of a very sweet sugar icing, for example, we used a more savory cream cheese icing. Similarly, our king cake is made with a buttery brioche dough already used in many of our most popular products.

Photo: Randy Krause Schmidt, from ‘The Big Book of King Cake.’

At first our sales were pretty dismal. I think we sold about one hundred king cakes our first season. Either people didn’t hear about us, or they figured what would a Vietnamese family know about making king cake?

Now we make 1,200 king cakes each day during Carnival season. Even with that large number, we have long lines of customers snaking out the door waiting to buy one. It’s amazing to think about. A family of refugees now makes one of the most popular king cakes in New Orleans. And it’s not just our king cakes. We make and sell five thousand loaves of bread daily, many of which are served at restaurants across the city.

It feels good to be accepted. More than accepted, really. It was only a few decades earlier people were making jokes that we ate dog. Today New Orleans embraces Vietnamese food as a central part of its storied cuisine. The poboy sandwich is an iconic New Orleans food, and many of those sandwiches are served on Vietnamese-style banh mi bread—crispier on the outside, and more pillowy on the inside than standard French bread. New Orleanians who have lived here their whole lives point out how Vietnamese food has helped to shape New Orleans cuisine in recent decades.

But it works the other way, too. Look no farther than all the different local filling options inside a banh mi, like shrimp remoulade or soft-shell crab, to see how New Orleans is influencing our food and culture. Viet-Cajun cuisine is on the rise.

Almost as soon as white New Orleanians began celebrating Vietnamese food, our neighborhood experienced a huge influx of Hispanic immigrants. This was in large part because of the construction work that needed to be done following Hurricane Katrina. Before then, we might have had one Tex-Mex restaurant in our neighborhood. Today, there are countless Latin American eateries.

Dong Phuong cofounder and baker Huong Tran. Photo: Randy Krause Schmidt, from ‘The Big Book of King Cake.’

From our very beginning, we’ve existed to serve our community. Just because our community looks a little different doesn’t mean that should stop. Today, many members of our staff are Hispanic, and we carry several items in our bakery that fit the tastes of our newer customers.

But that doesn’t mean we have to lose our traditional foods. Vietnamese people have always had flan. I just didn’t realize it had Hispanic roots. Also, yucca and coconut are popular flavors in both cultures, so we can prioritize some of those things and try new items as well. We can be both traditional and innovative.

In the past, it might have taken a generation to embrace a new immigrant group. Today, thanks to globalization and the internet, I think we’re generally more open. After all, if we’re able to go through life without coming in contact with other groups, we can fill the void with our worst fears and assumptions. When life forces us to connect and communicate, however, I think more often than not we realize we like each other.

Today we not only have Hispanic staff members, but also staff from families who have lived in New Orleans for generations. That would have never happened 15 years ago. Today, if you look around our bakery at any given time, it’s likely half of our customer base won’t be Vietnamese. It makes my mom and I very proud, and I think it points to something we can all stand to remember, particularly as immigration is such a big topic here in the United States—our willingness to embrace new foods and new cultures gives insight into how open-minded and accepting our own community is.

Connecting with others has been central to the Dong Phuong story. Time and time again, it’s helped us better serve our constantly evolving community. It’s the kind of connection I hope we’ll all embrace in the year ahead. It doesn’t just make for better business. It also makes us better people.