New Orleanians in search of the city’s best king cake often journey down Chef Menteur Highway until they hit what looks to be an ordinary, nondescript parking lot. But alongside it sits one of the city’s most extraordinary bakeries.
The silhouette of Dong Phuong Bakery & Restaurant at 14207 Chef Menteur Highway — its name emblazoned atop the establishment in bright letters, both English and Vietnamese — confirms to visitors that they’ve arrived. During Carnival season, they have to join the queue of customers lining the length of the building before they get their hands on a coveted box of the bakery’s king cake.
In a city where restaurants often rise and fall, a bakery founded by South Vietnamese refugees in the early 1980s succeeded in elevating New Orleans’s reputation as one of the best food cities in the world — and placed the ingenuity and resilience of its Vietnamese community firmly in the spotlight. Dong Phuong, as New Orleanians know it now, was built over four decades by three generations of a single family. Although the business first started as a haven for the Vietnamese community, members of the Tran family contributed to its explosive popularity, one recipe at a time: Huong Tran’s mooncakes, De Tran’s bánh mì baguettes, and the family’s king cakes that eventually earned them national recognition.
Today, the bakery sells several flavors of its buttery brioche king cakes, including almond, coconut, pecan, cinnamon, and cream cheese — the latter its most popular. Dong Phuong’s version eschews king cake tradition: Its layered, soft dough is folded, not braided, and the cakes, while flatter than some, are not dense. They are ring-less, meaning more cake to enjoy, and come without the plastic baby. The lightly whipped frosting is airier and less sweet than many others in town. A January 2024 story from The Washington Post reports that the bakery sells somewhere in the range of 60,000 cakes, each taking three days to complete, during Carnival season. They’ve gained so much acclaim that Dong Phuong even limits the number of cakes allowed per customer for preorders and walk-ins.
“For two months out of the year, we have people who’ve never stepped foot in New Orleans East come out,” Linh Garza, Dong Phuong’s president and De and Huong Tran’s daughter, says. But that wasn’t always the case for the restaurant, which operated with the same name under different ownership before the Tran family bought and re-established it in 1981. The bakery opened shortly after in 1982. The short story is this: Garza’s grandmother, Lieng Tran, then employed by Dong Phuong — one of the area’s only Vietnamese restaurants at the time — found an opportunity to buy the business with her family and did so, keeping its original name.
But the family’s journey to New Orleans actually began in 1978, when Garza, then one year old, and her relatives fled Việt Nam to escape the war. During their initial stay at a Malaysian refugee camp, her family applied to live in several countries, including Australia, Canada, and the U.S. Her father’s childhood friend, who resided in New Orleans, sponsored the family, and they resettled in New Orleans East in the late 1970s, building a new home among its Vietnamese diasporic community. The bulk of that population originally gravitated toward the suburb’s Versailles community or West Jefferson, according to the Louisiana Folklife Program.
In 1975, the U.S. Catholic Conference and its dioceses throughout Louisiana started helping some of the refugees resettle in the Pelican State. New Orleans East largely hosted the newcomers because of the availability of housing constructed in the 1960s for the area’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration presence, according to the American Historical Association. Vietnamese refugees in Louisiana predominantly hailed from northern Việt Nam — more specifically, the township of Phát Diệm and the Roman Catholic diocese of Bùi Chu.
Growing up in the Versailles area in New Orleans, Garza felt more closely connected to her Vietnamese culture than Crescent City traditions: celebrating Tết, or Lunar New Year, and the Mid-Autumn Festival within her community. Louisiana offered some parallels to Việt Nam, with its prominent fishing and shrimping industries, hot and humid climate, and the colonial remnants of the French language scattered throughout the state and in the city itself. But its quintessential customs, like Mardi Gras, second lines, and gumbo, were notably absent from her childhood in New Orleans East, which is located on the outskirts of the city — about a half hour drive from the French Quarter.
As her parents worked to make a living, Garza’s mother, Huong, would lean on memories of her own father’s bakery in Việt Nam and bake traditional pastries, such as mooncakes, in their shotgun house to sell at local grocery stores. When Garza’s grandmother, Lieng, was approached by then-owners of Dong Phuong with the offer to buy their business, she prayed on it for days before moving forward with the deal. “It was a big risk for us at the time,” Garza says.
After Garza’s family bought the restaurant in 1981, they would use its kitchen to bake after hours. While Huong continued delivering to neighborhood Asian markets, De shipped packages of mooncakes to customers nationwide from an electronics store owned by his friend. (“They were trying everything,” Garza says.) During the day, the restaurant kept the family even busier. Much more popular than the bakery back then, customers frequented it for traditional Vietnamese family meals and noodle soups.
In 1982, they opened their retail bakery in the same building. Garza’s father made a culinary breakthrough that boosted business in the early 1990s: a French bread recipe for bánh mì baguettes. “Before that, we were still making pretty traditional pastries and desserts that, outside of our community, nobody really knew about or cared to try,” Garza says. “[But] who doesn’t like French bread, especially in New Orleans?”
Around that time, Garza, a middle schooler, started working at Dong Phuong, helping at the register and in the retail shop. She lent a hand to the small staff, made up of about 15 employees, as the Tran family grew their business steadily over the next two decades.
But in 2004, grief rocked the family when De Tran passed away. In the wake of his death, the role of company president eventually passed on to Garza. She was still reeling from the loss when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005.
The storm struck in the weeks leading up to the Mid-Autumn Festival, considered prime mooncake season to many, including the Trans. Garza didn’t want to evacuate before the hurricane made landfall and leave behind unshipped boxes of baked goods. Still, her family ultimately decided to travel to Dallas to stay with her sister — a temporary plan that would last for months. From a television set in Texas, they watched as news channels broadcasted the devastation in New Orleans. During those weeks, they did not know what happened to their home in nearby Slidell or to Dong Phuong, which sat vacant during the storm and its aftermath.
Upon their return in the late fall, they assessed the damage. The bakery and restaurant had flooded, with no electricity, running water, or nearby businesses open to speed along the immediate area’s recovery. Garza’s family was faced with a decision: reopen the business or shutter its doors for good. Ultimately, they chose the former, but with the building’s roof damaged and its storage space demolished, it took weeks of work to get Dong Phuong up and running again. Contractors were in short supply, so the Trans had to learn how to carry out many of the restaurant’s required repairs themselves. For her part, Garza painted and participated in minor construction work.
Dong Phuong reopened in January 2006 selling just one product: bánh mì baguettes. But as one of the few bakeries to come back, neighbors — largely anxious and scared — rejoiced nonetheless at the signs of rebuilding.
Over the next two years, the business gradually recovered. A few customers within the Vietnamese community began to ask Huong Tran if she would ever bake and sell king cakes. Huong tried out different versions, while Garza taste-tested other king cakes in the market to give her mother ideas. Once relatives and friends gave their stamp of approval on a recipe, the family sold their king cakes for the first time in 2008. But they weren’t an immediate phenomenon, and Huong would continue to tinker with the recipe every Carnival season. Garza says that, at first, news of Dong Phuong’s king cake spread slowly, “just by word of mouth.”
She described their big break as an article published in the Times-Picayune newspaper about Dong Phuong king cakes in the mid-2010s. Customers from outside of New Orleans East started stopping by, and distributors worked with the business to sell cakes throughout the city. By 2018, the king cakes’ popularity erupted. That year, the James Beard Foundation awarded Dong Phuong with its American Classic award, securing the New Orleans bakery a spot on the nation’s culinary map.
In addition to king cakes, patrons can still buy Dong Phuong classics like its traditional mooncakes and bao. The bakery’s pastry selection includes croissants, Danish twists, and cream puffs, priced at $3 each. Bread lovers can take in more than the business’s renowned baguette, with 7-inch pistolettes, milk bread, coconut rolls, and cream buns on the menu. Sweet seekers are also in luck — a lengthy list of desserts spans from fruit tarts and flan to mochi and Chinese wafers. Dong Phuong takes orders for cakes of all sizes to celebrate special occasions, which can contain standard fillings or premium options, like fresh coconut and durian.
The restaurant and bakery weathered its latest challenge in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Garza says that the year’s Mardi Gras season had just wrapped, and she’d held a crawfish boil for her employees right before outbreaks began. “Our staff was worried,” Garza says. “We could see everybody was anxious.”
That March, Dong Phuong shuttered its business operations temporarily, but its team tried creative alternatives to keep its customers fed and workers employed. The restaurant and bakery set up a walk-up window for a few days before eventually turning to online ordering and curbside pickup. Once the COVID-19 vaccines became available to the public, business started to return to its normal level. “We kind of mustered through,” Garza says.
Dong Phuong counts as one touchstone of New Orleans’s broader Vietnamese community, which has made an indelible imprint on the city’s cultural tapestry, Garza says. Much has changed since her childhood. Now, “you can go anywhere and see a phở restaurant or a bánh mì shop,” including Mint Modern Vietnamese on Freret Street and Lilly’s Cafe on Magazine Street, she says. She’s watched New Orleans come to embrace Vietnamese culture and others as more immigrant populations, including Hondurans and Guatemalans, forge new lives and grow their communities in The Big Easy.
This Carnival season, business is booming at Dong Phuong, even in the wake of some January production hiccups. When Garza arrives to start her day, New Orleanians are already gathered outside, with a line forming as early as 7 a.m. In 2024, the line stretches longer, and the team is kept busier than before, but Garza remains confident in their ability to feed every mouth eager for a bite of the bakery’s king cake.
“Every year, we get a little bit better,” she says.