The Sweet Smell of Success
A look at what, and who, is baking in the Crescent City.
Not too long ago, you might have been forgiven for assuming that local stand-alone bakeries were becoming a thing of the past. The mighty McKenzie’s chain had fallen. Memorable single-location bakeries like “Mister Wedding Cake” Lawrence’s in Gentilly had disappeared. National chains and increasingly sophisticated grocery store bakeries seemed to be gobbling up market share.
But various boulangeries and patisseries have survived the tides, and a large number of newcomers have washed in as well.
One old timer, nearing age 100, is Swiss Confectionery in the Warehouse District; it has supplied generations of New Orleanians with their wedding cakes. Another — among the most legendary of the local bakeries — is Angelo Brocato’s in Mid-City, which doubles as a gelateria.
The longtime Brocato’s location on Ursulines in the Vieux Carre has for three decades been home to Croissant d’Or Patisserie. Croissant d’Or has carved out a seasonal niche, selling Buche de Noel; it has also established itself as a breakfast and lunch spot thanks to its blend of savory and sweet. Other French bakeries like Maurice (in Metairie) and La Boulangerie (Uptown) have expanded locations and contracted again. Maurice always keeps an array of Alsatian kugelhopfs at the ready.
Some bakeries are more synonymous with birthday cake. Gambino’s remains highly visible behind its landmark signage on Veterans Memorial Boulevard, with another location in Gretna. Gambino’s, perhaps more than any other bakery, is associated with doberge cakes, having bought the original recipe from Beulah Ledner in the 1940s. Few flavors are as redolent of a New Orleans childhood as that of a doberge cake.
Newer cake specialists include Pure Cake on Freret Street Uptown and The Sweet Life in Lakeview.
Other bakeries are more synonymous with king cake, like Haydel’s, Antoine’s and Manny Randazzo’s.
Another bakery increasingly known for its king cakes comes to baking from a unique angle. For nearly four decades, Dong Phuong in eastern New Orleans has blended French and Vietnamese recipes to create much-discussed breads and pastries.
In recent years, a fresh batch of bakeries has emerged. Norma’s Sweets Bakery, with locations in Kenner and Mid-City, specializes in Latin American confections — tres leches cakes, flan and a large variety of breads, including Cuban sandwich bread. Norma’s pastelitos go from the sweet to the savory, from pastelitos de queso y guayaba to pastelitos de carne.
Among the younger establishments is a crop of swanky places, including Willa Jean and Bittersweet Confections, both in the Warehouse District (Bittersweet can also be found at the St. Roch Market). Sucre, meanwhile, has locations Uptown, in the Vieux Carre and at Lakeside. In a similar vein is Gracious Bakery, with three locations, including a quick service option on Earhart Boulevard.
The Marigny and Bywater also have their share of nouveaux patisseries, all founded by recent transplants to New Orleans: New Orleans Cake Café & Bakery, Bywater Bakery and Shake Sugary.
Of course, there are the ancient bakeries that supply poor-boy bread and gravy-soakers to restaurants, such as Leidenheimer Baking Co. and John Gendusa Bakery. Alois J. Binder’s in the Faubourg Marigny also has a storefront, from which it sells hot donuts.
And speaking of donuts (doughnuts?) there has been an absolute explosion on that front. There’s Blue Dot in Mid-City, founded wryly by three NOPD officers. There’s the decidedly more hipsterific District Donuts, with locations Uptown, in Lakeview and in Elmwood. The opposite vibe resonates at Daddy’s Donuts in Gentilly. There are a couple of buttermilk drop specialists: Wink’s in the French Quarter and Buttermilk Drop Bakery in the Seventh Ward. (Buttermilk Drop’s Gentilly location recently burned down.) And then, of course, Tastee endures in multiple locations, selling a number of McKenzie’s old recipes alongside their own.
The list goes on.
Stepping back and looking at the totality, it appears there is an unprecedented effort afoot to fatten New Orleanians up. And that’s saying something.
Peter Reichard is a native New Orleanian who has written about the life and times of the city for more than 20 years, including as a former newspaper editor and business journalist.