In a quiet corner of New Orleans East, a small Vietnamese bakery churns out one of city’s most popular king cakes.
Most people equate Dong Phuong Bakery on Chef Menteur Highway with traditional Vietnamese food -- its banh-mi bread is a staple for many po-boy shops and restaurants across the city -- but since they began to bake king cakes in 2008, production has hit record highs.
What is usually a 10-hour work day becomes an around-the-clock operations during Carnival season.
The bakery opened in 1985 in an area of the East heavily populated with Vietnamese immigrants. It stands apart as being one of the few bakeries owned in the community by a minority woman.
POPULARITY QUICKLY GROWS
In 2008, the shop baked 100 king cakes to introduce Carnival to the local Vietnamese community. Last year, the bakery sold a whopping 30,000 king cakes.
Employees say part of the king cake's success is that founder Huong Tran is in the bakery every day, working shoulder to shoulder with her staff to make sure her secret recipe is executed correctly. She roasts and seasons the main ingredient to this year’s new flavor -- pecan -- with her own hands.
While the number of king cakes the bakery sells each year has swelled, it still remains somewhat elusive compared to the older, more popular cakes. Arthur Laughlin, Dong Phuong’s general manager, said the bakery’s location is the main reason.
“It’s a geographic hurdle; you’ve got to come to New Orleans East,” Laughlin said. “Popularity-wise, I say we’re number one. In lore, I think we still have a couple years to establish ourselves, because of the older, traditional bakeries. Everyone still has their memories of the McKenzie's king cakes, the Randazzo’s, the Haydel's.”
The brioche cake, offered in three flavors, is raked with holes so that the butter, cinnamon and filling can seep into the dough, instead of it being added after it's baked.
Even the icing is a step away from the norm.
“My favorite part is the cream cheese icing,” Laughlin said. “It lowers the sugar rush you’re going to get. It’s not as sweet as the other ones so you can actually enjoy the dough itself and appreciate the flavor of the brioche dough without being overpowered by the sugar icing.”
EASIER TO FIND
In recent years, the bakery has teamed up with local businesses like Pizza Nola to make the trek for king cake a little easier. However, Laughlin said for many, the drive out to the Michoud neighborhood isn’t a hurdle.
“We have a great amount of what I call our 'commuters,'" he explained. “They come from Slidell, even as far as Bay St. Louis. They’re coming up or down Chef, and they stop off here.”
While Dong Phuong’s footprint in the king cake world might not yet be as deep as others, its place in the New Orleans East community has long been felt.
“I believe that this is an anchor,” Laughlin said. “The fact that after Hurricane Katrina they stayed here is a testament to their commitment to the community. Had they left, I don’t think this part of New Orleans East would be as alive as it is.”