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“It sometimes feels like a dream to me,” explained Linh Garza, president of Dong Phuong Bakery, “that a small family of Vietnamese refugees could create all of this.”

What began as a small family bakery is now a New Orleans institution, honored with an America’s Classics award by the James Beard Foundation. And, despite the fact that it can take as long as 30 minutes to drive to Dong Phuong from the heart of the city, hundreds of locals and tourists line up along Chef Menteur Highway every day during the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras for a chance at one (or four) of the bakery’s famous king cakes.

But Dong Phuong’s popularity isn’t predicated on those cream cheese-covered purple, green and gold king cakes alone. A lineup of traditional and creative bánh mì sandwiches, savory pies, buns, and bao all attract customers from across the city and throughout the region. For many in the know, it’s the Vietnamese meat-filled puff pastry known as pâté chaud that makes the journey a necessity.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of this is that over the decades we have gotten to introduce New Orleanians and non-Vietnamese Americans to a new kind of cuisine,” Garza said.

“When we first opened, people here didn’t really know what Vietnamese food was, or thought they didn’t like it. Nowadays, though, we have customers who drive in from as far away as Florida or Texas to pick things up.” Garza laughed, remembering one woman in particular. “She ordered three hundred pâté chaud to go. I don’t even know what you can do with that much pâté chaud!”

Dong Phuong bakes and sells a whopping 1,600 king cakes each day during Carnival season, which spans from January 6 until Mardi Gras. Throughout the year, on any given Saturday or Sunday, Garza said they sell approximately one thousand meat pies and 900 bánh mì.

In addition to what they sell in the bakery, shipping items like meat pies, traditional mooncakes, and bánh mì loaves are a big part of their business. Of the five thousand loaves Garza and her team produce each day, the majority find their way to restaurants across New Orleans, as well as up and down the east coast.

“It gives me a lot of pride,” she said, “especially given the conditions that brought our family to America in the first place.”

That journey began in the 1970s, during the Vietnam War. Garza’s father, De Tran, served in the Air Force for the American-backed South Vietnamese. When the North took over Saigon in 1975, he was imprisoned and placed in a communist “re-education camp.”

After leaving the camp, De and his wife Huong, who still owns and runs Dong Phuong to this day, took Garza and her brother onto a boat heading for Malaysia. “My parents knew there was nothing left for them in Vietnam, and that things could get dangerous again,” Garza said.

Unfortunately, danger found the family anyway. Pirates boarded the ship to Malaysia and robbed its passengers, the Tran family included. “By the time we got to Malaysia,” Garza remembered, “we had nothing.”

The family survived in a Malaysian refugee camp for a year, before an old family friend who had settled in a growing Vietnamese population on the outskirts of New Orleans was able to sponsor the Tran’s immigration to join him. They arrived in New Orleans in 1980, unsure how they would make a living.

“Everyone in my family found some kind of work,” Garza said. “Anything to make some money. My mom did some baking that she sold to Vietnamese people at markets, and that started to go pretty well.”

Within two years, they had saved up enough money to buy an existing restaurant called Dong Phuong in a strip mall off of Chef Menteur Highway. The restaurant shared the building with a hair salon, a tailor, and a grocery store. Garza’s extended family operated the restaurant, while her parents baked out of the back.

As the other stores on the property closed, the restaurant expanded and her parents were able to take over space in the front for their bakery.

“That’s where the bakery still is today,” Garza said. “Everything has expanded over the years, but it’s not so different.”

Garza said growing up in New Orleans back then wasn’t easy. “My older brother and I were the first Vietnamese kids at our school,” she said. “We were made fun of a lot at first – for the way we looked, and how our food smelled. All that kind of stuff.”

But, Garza acknowledged, that makes the incredible progress they’ve made even sweeter. Some of it, however, has been difficult for even her to believe. “When I saw the email from the James Beard Foundation, I thought it was spam and I ignored it,” she recalled. “Then they called, and I thought it was a trick or something. The idea that this Vietnamese bakery in New Orleans would be called an ‘American Classic’ – I mean, what? I remember when classmates made fun of our food.”

Even though it has been proclaimed a Classic, Dong Phuong continues to transform. Though her father passed away more than a decade ago, Garza and her mother continue to find ways to innovate.

That change is largely driven by the fact that Dong Phuong has always been a neighborhood bakery at its heart. At first, all their customers were Vietnamese so the focus was on Vietnamese specialties like mooncakes. Later, as more non-Vietnamese New Orleanians found Dong Phuong, the bakery put their stamp on local traditions.

“We didn’t want to completely change king cake or anything,” Garza explained. “Vietnamese people just don’t like sweet things quite as much as Americans. So we used our brioche dough for the cake, and a richer cream cheese for the icing instead of the sugary icing other bakeries use.”

Today, as American diets change and the Latin American population increases in the neighborhood, Dong Phuong continues to adjust.

“We have vegan banh mi now with Impossible meats,” she said. “At we’re adding more Latin American pastries. We want to reflect the neighborhood we live in and add our twist so we enjoy the food. Fortunately, it seems other people enjoy it, too.”

Matt HainesMatt Haines

Published on March 05, 2024

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