How Vietnamese Refugees Turned a New Orleans Bakery Into a James Beard ‘American Classic’: Season 2, Episode 6 of ‘Let’s Go Together’
A return to travel is closer than you think.
Vaccines are up, hotels are getting booked out for summer, and borders are opening once again. We're celebrating all this with new episodes of our podcast, Let's Go Together, which highlights how travel changes the way we see ourselves and the world.
In the first season, our pilot and adventurer host, Kellee Edwards, introduced listeners to diverse globe-trotters who showed us that travelers come in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life. From the first black woman to travel to every country on Earth to a man who trekked to Machu Picchu in a wheelchair, we met some incredible folks. And now, in our second season, Edwards is back to introduce you to new people, new places, and new perspectives.
In the latest episode, Edwards chats with Linh Garza, whose family opened Dong Phuoung Banh Mi & Baked Goods in New Orleans in 1982 after arriving in the city as refugees.
"We arrived in late 1979, 1980. My dad's best friend was the one that sponsored us, and he was living in New Orleans at the time," Garza explains. "That's how we chose New Orleans or New Orleans chose us."
Garza adds, her family quickly became a fixture of the community, settling into a place that just felt like home.
"We came over here with no money, no knowledge of the English language, really no skill sets that would translate into making a living in a sense," she says. To make ends meet, Garza's mother started to bake. "She started making these little cakes and pastries, and she brought it to the local markets to sell. That's how it got started."
Those "little cakes" have now been named an "American Classic" by the James Beard Foundation.
"It was such an honor to be awarded the American classic. It's unbelievable how much that means. It just means that we're accepted. Our food, our cuisine is being accepted," Garza says.
Kellee: (script) Hi, my name is Kellee Edwards...and this is Let's Go Together, a podcast from Travel + Leisure about the ways travel connects us, and what happens when you don't let anything stop you from seeing the world.
On this episode, we travel to New Orleans, Louisiana – New Orleans East to be exact, home of the vibrant Vietnamese American neighborhood known as Versailles. We're here to talk to our guest, Linh Garza, who's family owns and operates the James Beard Award-winning Dong [Fong] Bakery.
Linh Garza: My name is Linh Garza, and I work for my family's business in New Orleans, Dong Phuong Bakery, Bakeshop, and we have been there since the early '80s. 1982 to be exact.
Kellee: Over the past 40 years, the Dong Phuong Bakery has become a New Orleans institution, known for their Banh Mi sandwiches (known locally as the Vietamese Po'Boy) and one of the city's best purveyors of the King Cake, a Mardi Gras tradition.
Linh shares the story of how her family came to New Orleans East as refugees from the Vietnam War, and how they ended up opening the Dong Phuong Bakery
Linh Garza: So my family left Vietnam in 1978. I was six months old when we boarded that boat. We were one of the boat people with hundreds of others, thousands of others. And we left Vietnam, boarded the boat. It was a ... To hear my mom tell me the story, it's quite amazing. It's unbelievable to make that journey. We took the boat ride to Malaysia and spent a year in a refugee camp before we were able to make it to the US, but we were met with pirates.
Kellee Edwards: Wow. I was going to ask, how long was that journey, starting from where you began to Malaysia and then Malaysia to the US?
Linh Garza: Well, from what my mom tells me, being on the boat, it was days of not seeing land. It was a pretty scary situation. Like I said, she said that pirates boarded the boat. We were robbed. Thankfully, there was no other situations that we heard of and other people had to face when they were met with pirates, rape or murders or anything like that. So we were thankful that we left, even though without our possessions, but we left with our lives. That in itself was a blessing. But, yes, after days, weeks in the open ocean.
Linh Garza [03:24]: When we made it to Malaysia, they actually didn't want us. They were sending us back to sea. They're like, "It's full," or whatever it is. And my mom said my dad was one of the first one to jump into the water and just pulling the boat in and just saying, "No, we're not going back." And to see her to tell that story, it still makes me quite emotional. Being a mom now, I just cannot imagine being so courageous to make that journey. Six-month-old baby, and my brother was two, and just leaving everything that you have, everything that you know to the unknown just to give your family a chance at a better life.
Kellee Edwards: Absolutely. So when did your family arrive in New Orleans, and why did they decide to start a bakery?
Linh Garza: We arrived in late 1979, 1980. My dad's best friend was the one that sponsored us, and he was living in New Orleans at the time. So that's how we, I guess, chose New Orleans or New Orleans chose us. And there was already a community there was quite a few Vietnamese that left with the fall of Saigon in 1975. So there was already a population and already a community. We settled in what became known as Versailles. It's actually village Dulles, but I guess Vietnamese with our roots with some French influence, we called it Versailles. And it was just a matter of survival. We came over here with no money, no knowledge of the English language, really no skillsets that would translate into making a living in a sense.
Linh Garza: So my mom, her dad in Vietnam had a bakery. He was a Baker. So grew up in her family, she has always helped out in the business, in the bakery. So she has learned, even though that was definitely not her career choice, she did not want to become a baker-
Kellee Edwards: What did she want to become?
Linh Garza: She wanted to become a banker.
Kellee Edwards: Oh, wow.
Linh Garza: She wanted to dress up in those nice dresses and going to work in an office. That was like a dream. She didn't want this. She went to college in Vietnam, in Saigon but the bombs and the war was getting too bad, so she had to come home.
Kellee Edwards: It's so interesting because she wanted to put the B in banking and she put the B in baker.
Linh Garza: Right.
Kellee Edwards: It's interesting when I've learned that when parents have these dreams of their own and they take a different route and it's always for the sake of their family.
Linh Garza: Yes.
Kellee Edwards: It's always for the sake of their family.
Linh Garza: Yeah, the sacrifice. Right.
Even though she didn't want that life, she learned, she knew how to make some things. And back then, everybody has to chip in to make money, to support the family. So in our kitchen, she starts making these little cakes and pastries, and she brought it to the local markets to sell. That's how it got started. And my dad at the time was just working as a stocker at the local supermarket, making, what, $2, $3 an hour or something like that. He was going to school at night. He wanted to be an engineer. He was in the Vietnamese Air Force, and math and science was always his love.
Kellee Edwards: Yeah.
Linh Garza: He loved that part. But when he realized that, hey, the community, she has such a support for her products because everybody wanted a taste of home. Her cakes were selling like hotcakes. They were just doing so well. And when he realized that, he quit, and he helped her, and they went from there.
Kellee Edwards: Well, I'll say this. When you say went from there, it's literally the hottest bakery in the area. You guys have ... I've seen the videos. You guys have lines out the door to get your products. So that's pretty inspiring to hear that. Tell us about the king cake, which seems to be the main star of Dong Phuong.
Linh Garza: Oh, the king cakes. So after Katrina, after Hurricane Katrina, a lot of bakeries closed, and we thankfully was able to survive that, another tragedy in a sense., We are located pretty far off the grid from New Orleans, we're about 20 minutes from downtown, and we're really the only bakery in the area. And we wanted to give our community a taste of this New Orleans street, but they didn't have to drive
to go too far to get it, but we knew that we had to cater to the community's taste. Vietnamese people don't like too much of that really sweet, sweet dessert, so we made some changes. We changed the traditional, the sugar icing to a cream cheese icing to give it more a savory taste rather than pure sweetness.
Then we used our traditional brioche dough that we've always been using for our other products, and we used that as a base. My mom, with her 10,000 skillsets, one of them being sewing, she started to make that shape because we were trying to figure out, how do we make this shape, this oval, circular shape without having to braid the dough? And she said, "Hey, look. Well, in sewing, if you were to try to make the fabric bend, you just make splits in it and you just cut it." And so that's what she did, and that's how we came up with the shape and the look that it has now that we kept.
Kellee Edwards: That's interesting because it sounds like ... because I believe your mother's father was Chinese. Right?
Linh Garza: Yes.
Kellee Edwards: So he was giving her Chinese recipes, and then she obviously used the Vietnamese recipes that she would have. And then you come to America and then you make it also ... You change it up a little bit to fit other tastes as well.
Linh Garza: Yes. So the French influence, like I said, my dad was so big on science and math, and baking fell into that, the science of baking. So he would study. We have a whole library of books that he would pour through the different techniques, the different temperatures, the different ratios. He was so big on that. And so that helped us come up with the other recipes for our French bread. In Vietnam, because of the French influence, it's surprising that a lot of people eat bread than rice.
Kellee Edwards: Yeah, definitely. You're right.
Linh Garza: And coffee. We drink coffee instead of tea.
Kellee Edwards: Instead of the tea.
Linh Garza: Yes, because of that French influence. But yeah, so the whole king ... We sold 100 king cakes the entire season that very first year, and we were so excited.
Kellee Edwards: And now?
Linh Garza: And now, we make over 1,200 a day for the entire season.
Kellee Edwards: Oh my, gosh. And they're sold out every day.
Linh Garza: They're sold out. Yes, they're sold out every day.
Kellee Edwards: Oh my, gosh. What time do you guys start baking for them to be ready? Is it an overnight thing?
Linh Garza: Yeah. It's all through the day. It's all through the night. We have three shifts. We're pretty much 24 hours when king cake season hit. Yeah, baking, making it.
Kellee Edwards: Well, I'll say this. I've been to New Orleans several times, and I've never experienced or have been anywhere east other than downtown, and now you're giving me a reason because when I think of New Orleans, I'm thinking of crawfish. I'm thinking of charbroiled oysters, po' boys. All of that type of stuff is what I associate with New Orleans cuisine. And then here you go saying, "Hey, we got something over here too." And I thought that's really cool. And one thing that I was wondering is I was like, well, what does Dong Phuong mean? It literally means east. Right?
Linh Garza: It does. It means east. So journey east.
Kellee Edwards: Wow. Exactly.
Linh Garza: Make that journey. It would be worth it.
Kellee Edwards: 20 minutes outside.
Linh Garza: 20 minutes outside.
Kellee Edwards: That's awesome. But because it's doing so well, it's being received, it sounds like, everywhere. You won a very, very prestigious award. Tell us about what it was like to win the James Beard Award.
Linh Garza: So they sent me an email. I thought it was a scam. I literally put it in my junk mailbox because I did not ... I knew about the James Beard, being a foodie in a sense, so I know how prestigious that award was. I was like, "There's no way. This is a scam." I guess I didn't respond to their emails, so they actually called me, and I was like-
Kellee Edwards:They're like, "Hi. We're real."
Linh Garza: Oh, okay. Okay. Let me move that email out of my junk box now. But yes, it was so amazing. It was such an honor to be awarded the American classic. It's unbelievable how much that means. It just means that we're accepted. Our food, our cuisine is being accepted. It's being called an American classic. It's unbelievable. And you know what the proudest moment was for me? It was when my family called from our village in Vietnam and said, "Hey, there's a news article here-
Kellee Edwards: Oh, wow.
Linh Garza: ... about you guys, about you winning the James Beard Award." I don't have the words to express how wonderful, how proud we were to be recognized not only here but over there-
Kellee Edwards: Absolutely.
Linh Garza: ... our family. Yes, not only did we make it to America, we thrived and we succeeded. And not only for us but for our whole community, our culture, our people.
Kellee Edwards: Absolutely. That's beautiful. What would you say is your favorite item in the bakery?
Linh Garza: My favorite item is actually the very first thing my mom made, which is what my grandfather was known in Vietnam, it's the bánh pía. It's a bean cake. It's a bean pastry. And I liked the durian one. I know there's ... I know. I know.
Kellee Edwards: Durian what?
Linh Garza: I know durian evokes, yes, it evokes some-
Kellee Edwards: Emotions.
Linh Garza: ... emotions, but I don't have an issue with the smell. I actually love it. I think it's a very sweet, delicious fruit. And once it's in a pastry, I think it's amazing. So that is actually my favorite. It's still my favorite. My uncle is in Vietnam. They still run the bakery over there after my grandfather passed, and they still make it, and I love it. Yeah, it's one of my favorites. I think it will always be my favorite.
Kellee Edwards: Fine. Maybe I'll be more inclined to try it since you put it like that.
Linh Garza: Yes.
Kellee Edwards: Especially ... And you're partial to it because you're like, listen, this is the first thing that my mother made. And so I love that you're like, I'm going to tie this connection that I have with my love for my mother and everything that has been sacrificed, and it's going to be through this amazing dessert.
Linh Garza: Yes. And it is amazing.
Kellee: (script) After the break, Linh tells us more about her neighborhood of Versailles, and what it was like growing up as part of a refugee community
Kellee: (script) Welcome back to Let's Go Together from Travel + Leisure.
My guest today is Linh Garza, who's family runs one of the hottest bakeries in New Orleans:
So your family settled in New Orleans East in a community called Versailles, which you just shared with us earlier. Tell us about the neighborhood and what it was like growing up in New Orleans as a part of a refugee community.
Linh Garza: I think it helps. I think it really does because come to a new place, you don't know anyone, language barrier. So I think being able to have a community where English might not be needed when you have to go to the grocery store and things to buy necessities and such. So I think it helps, but it also insulated me. Growing up there, growing up in New Orleans East, I was away from all the tourist spot. I don't think I even went downtown until I was much older. My parents worked all the time at the business, and I helped out on the weekends at the bakery, so there wasn't much time to go exploring, and it's something I always wanted to do. When I moved away, I came back as a tourist just so I want to see what others see of our city. I tried to visit all the other areas.
Kellee Edwards: And were you shocked at what you experienced because it was only 20 minutes away? This has all been here this whole time and now I'm just experiencing it.
Linh Garza: It was. In a sense, it's beautiful. I love Audubon Park, City Park. I love all the oak trees. I'm a nature ... So I love going down and seeing all those huge houses on St. Charles. But I don't think I was ever really, since I didn't live in there, I'm not sure if I was ever really immersed into the whole culture that I guess others know of New Orleans.
Kellee Edwards: Right.
Linh Garza: Because like I said, we were pretty separated. Besides food, I did try everything food-wise, but other than that, I did feel a little bit away from the city itself.
Kellee Edwards: How would you say the Vietnamese community in New Orleans is unique?
How is it unique?
Linh Garza: I think we're unique in sense that we're close-knit but we also try to adapt. We try to fit in through food for one. Now you see a lot of places around New Orleans. Every neighborhood in New Orleans now has a pho restaurant.
Kellee Edwards: Right.
Linh Garza: And then you see the rise in Viet-Cajun seafood places. That's coming up. You got to try that.
Kellee Edwards: Yeah. I'm like, Viet-Cajun, oh, yum.
Because I definitely like the little spice in my food. I like some Cajun. Okay.
Linh Garza: Yeah. So you got to try that. I don't know. It feels like we're just resilient. We were one of the first communities to come back after Katrina.
Kellee Edwards: Oh, wow.
Linh Garza: We stuck around. We didn't give up.
Kellee Edwards: How would you say that the Vietnamese community in New Orleans has changed over the years?
Linh Garza: Well, in Versailles, it's still predominantly Vietnamese. We actually have street names in Vietnamese now.
Kellee Edwards: Oh, wow.
Linh Garza: Saigon Drive. So it has expanded in a sense, but you also see an exodus of the next generation Vietnamese, my generation, generation after me. They are starting to expand out there, living in other parts of New Orleans now. But we also see new immigrants coming in after Katrina. We have an influx of Hispanic population in our community. There is Spanish mass now at our church.
Kellee Edwards: Oh, wow.
Linh Garza: Yeah. There's a small Latino market. And at the bakery, almost half of our employees are Hispanic, and we have expanded into the Latin products. My mom always made a flan, but I didn't know that had some Hispanic roots. Growing up, I was like, "Oh, I love flan." But now-
Kellee Edwards: Is it called flan?
Linh Garza: It is.
Kellee Edwards: Oh, man. I didn't know that.
Linh Garza: Well, it's a different accent. It's banh [flang]. Instead of flan, it's flang.
Kellee Edwards: Right. Well, I live in LA. I know a lot about flan for sure. It's interesting that you were saying in a way that the two communities were merging in some different areas. As you said, they have a mass now. And then even in your bakery, you guys are mixing some of your traditions with their traditions, as you said, with the flan. It sounds like it's not just community, but it's also, as you said earlier, becoming more mainstream as far as your bakery is concerned. How has the mainstream acceptance of Vietnamese cuisine changed over the years in your opinion?
Linh Garza: Well, let me tell you. So growing up, I went to ... In elementary school, my brother and I were the very first Vietnamese student they ever had.
Kellee Edwards: Oh.
Linh Garza: The very first.
Kellee Edwards: I know that had to be interesting.
Linh Garza: Yes. So when my mom packed us lunch-
Kellee Edwards: Oh, okay.
Linh Garza: ... it was not well received.
Kellee Edwards: And lunch is a big deal.
Linh Garza: Yes.
Kellee Edwards: Yeah, lunch, especially at that young age, it's like either you come with a cool lunch or you're getting teased. That's what it is.
Linh Garza: Yes. And it's like, "Oh yes, that claypot fish sauce, in fish sauce."
Kellee Edwards: Oh my, gosh.
Linh Garza: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So it was interesting growing up and just see how our food was ... Being kids, of course, some of it was offensive or ridiculed, but now, if you know the best pho place, you're the cool kid. Right?
Kellee Edwards: Of course.
Linh Garza: And I think my child, my daughter, I don't think she would have to face the same that I did growing up because it has become a lot more mainstream. For us, it's almost equivalent to chicken noodle soup in a sense. It's so well-known. And banh mi is, of course, that's the Vietnamese, po' boy now. It's becoming accepted as a po' boy in New Orleans. It's one of the ... So that's-
Kellee Edwards: I feel like I want to be on and having a completely different experience next time I go to New Orleans because I now know that there is a whole entire other cuisine that exists that I had no idea that was there. That's so interesting. Can you share some thoughts on the connection between food and culture and how it's shaped the Vietnamese American community in New Orleans?
Linh Garza: I think food is the easiest way to understand our culture, in my opinion. If you're willing to be open, you're willing to try, I think you can learn a lot about the culture through the food. And I think it's easy
instead of just being ... Just taking the chance, just going out there, just try it. And if you like it, it just opens up so many conversations and just making new friends. I think it's the gateway. I think it's the easiest gateway.
Kellee Edwards: Absolutely.
Linh Garza: If you respect another culture, to be able to try new things, to just do it. It's not going to hurt you. It's food.
Kellee Edwards: Very true.
Linh Garza: So just make the leap and just try it. If you don't like it, hey, you try something else, but just give it a chance.
Kellee Edwards: At least you've tried it, for sure.
Linh Garza: Exactly. Just try that durian, girl. Just do it.
Kellee Edwards: When you say it, it just makes me giggle because I think of the smell, and I'm like, I have to always remember, inside of this strange alien piece of fruit, it is amazing. Holy smokes. Besides your bakery, what are some of the places that you think people must visit when they go to New Orleans?
Linh Garza: Well, my mom, she loves charbroiled oysters.
Kellee Edwards: Me too. Whoo.
Linh Garza: So Drago's. Every time I come home, because she doesn't get out much either, being so busy with the business and being 20 minutes away from everything, from civilization, I always try to take her there. And like I said, I love the nature part of New Orleans, all the parks that we have. Let me think. When I was 21, I guess I could have said Bourbon Street, but now that I'm much older, it's like if you show up to Bourbon Street not already drunk, it is absolutely disgusting.
Kellee Edwards: Oh.
Linh Garza: Oh, you have to be already ... in order to not-
Kellee Edwards: Be aware of your surroundings.
Linh Garza: Yes. Oh. Being downtown, being in the Quarter, it's a different ... I don't think there's any other city like it.
Kellee Edwards: Since you have your famous king cakes, it makes me want to know what you think of something else in New Orleans is known for and it is there, the beignets.
Linh Garza: The beignets. Yes, I love beignets.
Kellee Edwards: Yes.
Linh Garza: As soon as I ... because the airport, it's close. There's a Café Du Monde and I stop there, I pick it up for my mom, and her coffee, she goes café au lait, and I bring it to her. I love beignets. And we have thought about doing beignets because actually, my mom says that my grandfather used to make beignets.
Kellee Edwards: Well, then, there you go. What are we waiting on?
Linh Garza: I know.
They call it pillow cakes, is what it's called. In Vietnamese, direct translation, it's called pillow cakes because it looks like a pillow.
Kellee Edwards: Well, can you say how it sounds in Vietnamese?
Linh Garza: Bánh gối.
Kellee Edwards: Bánh gối. Interesting. Yeah.
Linh Garza: Gối is pillow.
Kellee Edwards: You might as well bring ... You already have the flan.
Linh Garza: I know.
Kellee Edwards: Go ahead and try and see ... Listen. Make them amazing. Don't make them too good because I'd go to make sure that I'm going to have an experience with beignet at Café Du Monde. So I'm ... let's leave the king cakes over there.
Well, thank you so much, Linh, for coming on and sharing about your community and about your amazing bakery. I'm hoping now that I've interviewed you that when I come, that instead of waiting two hours in line to get one of your cakes, I'm going to make a phone call and hopefully it's about 30 minutes.
Linh Garza: Yes, you got connection. Yes, you got some connections now. Yes. Just give me a holler.
Kellee Edwards: I appreciate it.
Linh Garza: But we only make king cakes during Mardi Gras, so you have to-
Kellee Edwards: Good to know.
Linh Garza: We stick to tradition.
Kellee Edwards: Okay. Fair enough. Fair enough.
Linh Garza: From king's days to Mardi Gras into Fat Tuesday, and that's it.
Kellee Edwards: That's awesome. Thank you.
Linh Garza: No, thank you.
Kellee: (script) That's all for this episode of Let's Go Together, a podcast by Travel + Leisure. I'm Kellee Edwards. Our guest for this episode was Linh Garza, President of Dong Phuong Bakery in New Orleans. Learn more about the bakery by following them Instagram at (@D-P-Bakeshop) and check out their website at D-P-Bakeshop.com
Thanks to our production team at Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav, Danielle Roth, Lene Bech Sillisen, and Marvin Yueh [yu-eh]. This show was recorded in Los Angeles, edited in New York City, and can be found wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks also to the team at Travel and Leisure, Deanne Kaczerski, Nina Ruggiero, and Tanner Saunders
You can find out more at travel and leisure dot com slash podcast. You can find Travel + Leisure IG @travelandleisure, on Twitter @travelleisure, on TikTik @travelandleisuremag, and you can find me at @kelleesetgo.
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