There are people who will look at a beautifully decorated cake and see their name written all over it, no matter what message might actually be in the frosting.
And there are some who will lift the bamboo lid from a basket of dumplings and feel like they just opened a jewel box.
In a strip mall in Metairie, one small bakery café is now catering to them both.
Wishing Town Bakery Café (701 David Drive, Metairie, 504-267-5985) is a dessert shop with head-turning, even eye-popping creations, especially its many-layered mille crepe cakes or its custom sheet cakes, topped with lush landscapes of cream dollops, fruit slices, frosting flowers, real flowers and macaroons.
This spring, it added a roster of soup dumplings, beef salads and marinated seafood. These dishes are small and inexpensive (most are under $6) and the menu is short. A table of four could sample every dish in one swoop.
But it goes a long way to giving Wishing Town Bakery Café a dual identity, functioning both as a dessert emporium and something like a dim sum parlor. It’s a spot for quick, relatively light meals around a café table, and distinct from the Chinese take-out joints (there’s one of those right next door) or the shared platter feasts of full-fledged Chinese restaurants.
The menu is the latest move from proprietors Vivi and Kevin Zheng. This young couple, originally from Guangzhou, China, are making an outsized contribution to New Orleans food by tapping their own traditions and adapting as they go for their local clientele.
They started out with their Yami food truck, which is like a rolling hibachi grill parked in front of downtown hospitals and office buildings. At lunchtime, people in medical scrubs and suits line the sidewalk by the Yami truck for plates of garlic butter steak and teriyaki salmon.
Kevin Zheng learned his food truck chops at his aunt’s Kenner restaurant, Sake Sushi Hibachi House, where he worked every station to get the full gamut of skills.
The bakery came about as the next step of a home-based business, a natural pathway for family-run bakers.
Vivi Zheng started making traditional Chinese baked goods at home, like egg tarts, her palm-sized pies of lemony, lightly brûléed custard, and moved into more elaborate cakes. She sold them to a circle of friends and family, and the work gradually outgrew the home kitchen.
They opened their bakery on a street that’s busy, but mostly with people headed somewhere else. Wishing Town is not a place many people are likely to just happen upon. Good thing, then, that Vivi Zheng fills the dessert case with so many things they’ll want to specifically seek out.
There are ranks of single-serve cake slices in flavors like green tea (earthy, subtly bitter), taro (fragrant, nutty) and pandan (floral, coconut-like). And there’s mille crepe cake, an East-meets-West phenom built from a dozen or so layers of crepe-thin cake neatly fixed between creamy filling.
The appeal starts with the visual but thankfully goes far beyond (not necessarily a given with exquisite looking desserts). While they look absolutely decadent, these cakes are more about a balance of texture and mellow-sweet flavors rather than outright sugar bombs.
Open a cake box to reveal these and people take note, usually audibly. That brings us back to the soup dumplings, which can elicit gasps in their own right.
The concept sounds like a simple combination of seasoned meat with a dose of broth enclosed in a dumpling. In practice, they represent a combination of patience, consistency, dexterity and intuition.
That produces the right tender durability in the dumpling noodle, the burst of broth when you bite in and the depth of its flavor that washes over the little morsel of meat inside. Each soup dumpling should be savored like its own gift. At Wishing Town, you get to savor six of them for eight bucks.
Wishing Town makes pork and beef versions, of which the pork is far more moist and flavorful. The soup dumplings and the xiao long bao (mini steamed buns — thicker, burlier, still very juicy) are the main act on the savory menu.
Augment them with the mussels, which are marinated in vinegar until they are about as dark as their shells, with a flavor blending briny and tart; or the “potato salad,” a crunchy, slaw-like combination of potato and carrot in soy sauce.
The marinated beef starts with thinly-sliced shank, slow cooked until it's condensed in thin, dark slices, striped with rich fat. I combined each bite with a bit of the fresh cucumber served beneath and a dab of rusty-red, smoky-spicy Szechuan chili sauce.
There is still more to sample around the bakery case, like cute mini cookie sandwiches pressed around cake frosting for a bit of Americana or the utterly exotic pork floss cakes. These are little chess piece-sized towers of shortcake coated in threads of salty pork, which looks like fur and compresses on the palate into something that tastes like jerky.
The Zhengs arrived at the name Wishing Town through a creative blend of Chinese and English. They started with the term wei xin tang, which they explained as summing up their dedication and aspiration for the bakery. When they spoke the words, they sounded like wishing town, and they heard a synchronicity of intent. Wishing Town sounded right for desserts someone might make a wish over, too.
The bakery café concept is growing around New Orleans, with more cropping up in neighborhoods around the city.
Wishing Town is a different take on the idea, quietly, beautifully working its own traditions and cross-cultural ingenuity into the mix.
701 David Drive, Metairie, (504) 267-5985
Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
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