Saturday, May 2, 2015

Rising (Again) in New Orleans East- The Bread of Dong Phuong

To the French, it’s an idee fixe.  English speakers will better recognize it as that cognitive siege-state wherein a lone idea, endowed with protean potency and power, occupies the mind with unmitigated singularity, and at the exclusion of all else.  That’s right:  I’m talking about obsession.  In a lifetime already crowded with perennially and seemingly intractable fixations (Hubig’s Honey Pies, mayonnaise, and Elvis Presley, thin and fat, just to name a few), I am, at this writing, consumed with but one obsession—a simple, single object of my now-greatest affection, which presently reigns utterly and totally supreme: the bread of New Orleans baker, Dong Phuong.

You read that right, boy-o:  the fluffy white stuff.

My first encounter with the bread of Dong Phuong—now over a year and a half ago—happened by happy accident when I picked up a roast beef Po Boy from the Adam’s Street Grocery in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans.  Of that first encounter, I’ve written before here (click on the hyperlink, yo).  But I haven’t eaten their bread since.  Why?  Because I don’t live in New Orleans; I divide my time between Chicago and Washington, D.C.   So not being able to routinely (if ever) consume the baked wizardry of Dong Phuong—a much-desired daily habit that life in the work-in-one-place food industry is necessarily wont to impede—has produced a constancy of craving that time and distance has made worse.  How so?  Because in an eating career devoted to assiduously paying attention to what food I manage to cram into my own gob hole, I have yet to encounter better commercially produced bread anywhere in North America.  Not in New York.  Not in San Francisco.  Not even in those fabled and wood-fired ovens of Pleasanton Bakery in Traverse City, Michigan.  So when a recent opportunity to visit my brother, Brian, in his New Orleans home presented itself, I jumped at the chance.  But this visit to New Orleans would be different than the last. Because on this visit, I would not merely just eat the bread of Dong Phuong.  No, no.  On this visit, I would travel to the bakery itself, that culinary progenitor of the best baguette in America.  I would go, as if on pilgrimage, like some acolyte before an oracle, and see where all that magic was made.  And I would buy bread.  And I would eat and eat and eat.

So I went. 

Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery sits roadside, along Chef Menteur Highway, in the Village de L’Est, or Versailles (read:  “Little Vietnam”), neighborhood of New Orleans East.  The sheer banality of that sentence belies the hugely significant fact that New Orleans East saw some of the most savage devastation wrought upon Orleans Parish by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  We are talking an ass kicking of biblical proportions.  Of the 95,000 residents who lived there before the storm, only 65,000 of them have ever made it back.  The destruction to which those survivors first returned must have seemed nearly apocalyptic in scope: a dystopian, almost lunar landscape, with trees totally denuded of their late-summer foliage, and the detritus of modern Gulf life—fishing boats, corrugated out buildings, school buses—scattered here and there (even atop one another) as if by the whimsy and caprice of an enormous (if highly incensed) child at a game of jacks.  It was, for New Orleans East, total Armageddon.  The levees failed, spectacularly, as we now know, and the low country of New Orleans East—haplessly situated between the high ground of Lake Pontchartrain and the way-way-lower marsh and swamp lands to the extreme-eastern part of Orleans Parish—filled up with storm water like one enormous and highly-toxic fishpond; you remember the images, because, well, how could you possibly forget.  Electrical power wasn’t fully restored to New Orleans East until late-2006.  By 2007, still less than half of the pre-Katrina population had returned, and those who had were then remanded to occupy that living third-ring-of-hell that was federally-mandated subsistence inside those fucking Bush-issue FEMA trailers.

To now consider that De and Huong Tran (the bakery’s husband-and-wife owners/operators since its 1985 inception, and whose own 1980 immigration from Vietnam yet bears the whiff of post-war diaspora) should decide to rebuild their bakery among such almost-impossible-to-comprehend devastation is something nearly beyond our power to wonder.  That this tiny bakery on the edge of America’s latest and greatest wasteland would rise up through such unspeakable ruin only to then produce what is easily among the best, commercially available bread products in the American South is unlikely in the most extreme.

But rebuild they did.

We went to Dong Phuong in the morning.  We went on Easter Sunday.  We four—my brother, his wife, and my companion extraordinaire, the ever-phosphorescent X, and me—with our faces pressed up against the glass of my brother’s speeding pickup, like a lost band of voyagers not quite able to reconcile what we were seeing out the window—ruin after architectural ruin, and the all-consuming kudzu wrapped carrion-like around it—with what we knew to be the United States of America in the twenty-first century.  Because what we were seeing was a model of the Third fucking World, or a nearly perfect facsimile thereof, a now-vast empire of weeds and rust, with its post-catastrophe sorrow of not-so-benign neglect, washed up in America’s very own back yard. 

But things were different at Dong Phuong.  Entirely.  There were cars, for one thing.  And pickup trucks, besides our own.  And people.  Lots of people—Anglo and Asian alike—eating sweet and savory pastry on the hoods of their cars.  We parked, we four, and hurried inside.  What we discovered within Dong Phuong itself was the incredible redolence of baking bread, and the mellifluous sound of Vietnamese being spoken, loudly, rapidly, in all of its sharp-tongued and atonal glory.  I know the bread-as-life metaphor is a tired old workhorse in the world of letters, but to step into Dong Phuong—on Easter morning, of all mornings—and slip into that proverbial warm bath that is any good bakery bustling with activity on a sunny Sunday morning, was to very much experience something akin to resurrection—and triumph—of the collective anthropological spirit over the malaise of post-Katrina ennui that yet remains, pall-like, over New Orleans East.  The bakery was ebullient with the elation of a people who have come through slaughter, and with all their fingers and toes.

All this happiness made us hungry.


So we ordered food.  And just what we ordered—item after miraculous item; each somehow better than the last—now reads like a culinary Homeric catalog of ships:  banh mi of thit nguoi (sandwiches of French-style pork) and xa xiu (Chinese barbecue pork); pate chaud, in pastry, of course, of thit ga (spicy chicken); banh bao hap thap cam (Imperial steamed buns); bia dau do (red bean cakes); and for dessert, banh dua nuong (coconut macaroons).  And bread.  All of it with bread.

We paid almost nothing for our food (by those now-hyper-inflated French Quarter prices), and left with our bags to then climb into my brother’s pickup, and head back towards New Orleans proper, back through those post-apocalyptic badlands of New Orleans East, to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, where we sat at a picnic table and ate under the late-morning shade of a catalpa tree, the four of us lightheaded and happy on the now-certain knowledge that we had just procured—and had our mouths full of—some the greatest Vietnamese street food these United States has to offer.

There are demonstrable and deeply scientific reasons as to why the bread of Dong Phuong is so amazingly good.  There is the matter of the high-gluten flour they surely must use for certain breads, and how those flour proteins therein—the albumin, globulin, and proteoses, with the attendant leavening agents—interact with the insoluble mineral content unique to the ground water of New Orleans East to produce a bread without peer in texture and taste.  There is also the heavy moisture content of that just-below-sea-level bayou air to consider, and how the water in that air interacts with—and ultimately affects—the bread dough when it’s allowed to autolyse.  There is the (likely) use of calcium propionate to retard the growth of molds.  There is even the matter of that harmless variety of ever-present bacteria on the bakers’ hands that informs the bread’s character and flavor.  The reasons, no doubt, are all so heavily Harold McGee.  But I choose to ignore all that.  I choose to eschew that large and perfectly empirical body of food science behind what makes Dong Phuong’s bread so undeniably excellent.  Instead, I choose to embrace the kind of faith-based belief in the ephemera and fairy dust that is at the real heart of all truly great gastronomy.  Like Santa Claus.  Like the Easter Bunny.  Such is my belief in Dong Phuong.  The bread is just that good.

When you next visit New Orleans, do yourself (and me) a favor:  eat the bread of Dong Phuong.  Just do it.  I implore you.  Why?  Because it’s now available almost everywhere in the Crescent City.  On the po boys at Adams Street Grocery.  On the pulled-pork sandwiches at the always-excellent McClure's Barbecue on Magazine Street.  Because the when you and I should meet again on the street, friend-o, I want to be able to whisper those two, magical little words—Dong Phuong.  And I want you to be able to nod and smile right back like the culinary secret sharer you will now be.  It will be our secret handshake.  Only better.

Your links:  Dong Phuong
                   McClure's Barbecue