It's not the edge of the world, but it's a foreign one to most who live west of the high-rise. The first block of Alcee Fortier Boulevard is lined with boutiques selling smooth jade bracelets, pharmacies cluttered with silken fabrics and buttons, video stores renting Asian imports, and grocery markets stocked with roasted rice powder, whole pigs' legs, bamboo steamers and frozen durian. Further down, there's residential Saigon Drive, where meticulously pruned front lawns shape altars around Virgin Mary statuettes belonging to the area's many Catholic Vietnamese. At the short boulevard's end, legions of mating monarchs flutter at ground level while dragonflies the size of bats buzz overhead. The conical hat of an old Vietnamese man working a community garden materializes from behind a fence of banana trees that flap heavily in the wind like billowing elephants' ears.
I was in this neighborhood for the first time when a dear shopkeeper recommended Dong Phuong, a small favor that forever raised my expectations of bakeries regardless of nationality.
When I entered, a baker bustled past me with a tray of bronzed raisin buns, sliding it into a rack already loaded with flaky turnovers, bleach-white steamed buns and green-tinted tapioca cake layers. I stood stock still, canvassing the room with my eyes, afraid if I moved the candies would turn plastic, the breads hollow and the baker into a mannequin. This was the calm before the storm, the fresh breath of discovery, the moment between innocent curiosity and untreatable addiction.
As I write, my kitchen countertop is littered with ends of eggy coconut-scented bread; squishy squares of Chinese banana candy coated with sesame seeds and stinging with ginger; coconut-covered gummy worms made from steamed yucca; nubs of "newton" bars filled not with fig but mealy mung beans, stinky lotus paste and shredded coconut; a half-eaten cream puff; and three crusty French pistolettes. The saga continues in the refrigerator, where split steamed buns spill hard-cooked egg, congealed sausage and crunchy cubes of malanga root. There's the striped candy of yellow mung bean paste and green tapioca I thought might liquefy in the kitchen's heat. And the remnants of puff pastry filled with sweet ground pork and onions. And, finally, my favorite: a few clear plastic cups of sweet soups (che) and custards. These are the sweets that fuel my drive to explore every last Vietnamese restaurant. My current favorite contains overripe banana chunks and distended tapioca pearls swimming in coconut milk. I alternate it with a firm coconut custard pocketed with sugary mung bean paste and shot through with green seaweed strands.
I've been to Dong Phuong three times in three days. My stomach aches. My mouth is as raw as an adolescent's on the day after Halloween. And still I wonder when I can return to the flowery wallpapered room where Buddha sits on his altar below a display of wedding cake tops, where decorative tins present ornate moon cakes for the traditional mid-autumn harvest moon festival, and where sweet Vietnamese women humor me when I regress into a toddler pointing and asking repeatedly "What's this?", "What's this?" While masses of socialized shoppers stand cheek by jowl in a civilized queue, any sense of personal space and decorum I once had vanishes at the opportunity to touch, poke, jiggle and smell everything: pastries mysteriously stamped with numbers and symbols in red and green dyes; peanuts suspended in a clear, gumdrop-like filling; airy, foot-long Tiger buns I never got to try.
In my sugar rush, I didn't immediately notice the sign for banh mi, exquisite Vietnamese sandwiches built inside the bakery's signature oblong French bread loaves. I ultimately was taken with three different banh mi, which contained crumbly Chinese fish patties in tomato sauce, a spongy, compressed shrimp cake ("roasted shrimp") and greasy Vietnamese sausages like skinny red brats, respectively. All three salty fillings were complemented by shockingly fresh dressings: housemade mayonnaise, chubby cucumber rods, shredded carrot, cilantro stems and slices of hot green chile. Even with a glass of fresh pineapple juice and coconut milk served over crushed ice from Dong Phuong's restaurant, a banh mi lunch runs less than $4.
But how could I come this far without mentioning the restaurant, where on my very first outing, from the six-page menu, I chose a singularly perfect bowl of soup? Dark broth puffed the clove and anise incense of Chinese five-spice mix. A braised duck leg, falling apart at my gaze, floated amongst the soup's bundle of egg noodles, crisp bok choy, whole shiitake mushrooms and browned garlic chips.
The entire experience truly is almost too much to assimilate. When I unearth a place like Dong Phuong, I know I owe the universe something big. The best I can do is to hand it over to you.