Outside New Orleans, a new Mardi Gras experience: The King Cake Drive-Thru

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A tire store parking lot has become a popular destination for those craving the beloved treat. The only problem: which variety to choose?

Reporting from Metairie, Louisiana, and the kitchen of Joyce's Sweets in Ponchatoula, where she tried a praline-filled pie fresh from the oven.

Of course, Mardi Gras is all about limitless revelry: the weeks of balls and parades that shower the streets of New Orleans with beads. But behind all that, it is also a period of metamorphosis.

A Tuesday in the middle of winter transforms from the most mundane day into a festival of frivolity and vice. People shed the cocoons of their usual lives and emerge covered in feathers and sequins.

And this year, on the outskirts of New Orleans, a tire store that for as long as we can remember sold only auto parts has become a bustling market offering king cakes, the delicacy of the Carnival season, in almost every street. imaginable flavors.

All you have to do is go up.

“Any idea what you want?” Tiffany Langlinais asked a customer that she arrived on a Friday afternoon.

It's a daunting question at the King Cake Drive-Thru. Flaky or spongy? Cream cheese filling? What about strawberries, ice cream and even crabs, or nothing more than the traditional plastic baby? Pastries from more than a dozen bakeries are offered.

Others have had the idea of ​​selling king cakes selected from several local bakeries, in one location, such as King Cake Hub in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans. But the innovation of the King Cake Drive-Thru, which Langlinais opened in January with her fiancé, Mike Graves, is the added convenience of accessing that wealth of options without even having to get out of the car.

The drive-thru has attracted nurses heading to morning hospital shifts, parents with cars full of children, tourists on road trips and people with limited mobility or weakened immune systems that prevent them from easily exploring bakeries. Even the food editor of the city's main newspaper, The Times-Picayune, stopped by.

“I'm surprised no one thought of it before, Mike,” David Scripter told Mr. Graves as he dropped off an order for dozens of pastries from Bittersweet Confections, a bakery founded by his wife.

“Sometimes,” Graves said, “the best ideas are right in front of you.”

The drive-thru, which occupies the parking lot of Duckworth Tires in the suburb of Metairie three days a week, often has a line of cars waiting when it opens at 7 a.m., and sold out of its inventory well before its 7 p.m. indicated closure.

King cakes have always been a staple of the Carnival season along the Gulf Coast, a crown of pastry served during a burst of gluttony and good times before the austerity and fish fry of Lent. (King cake season begins on January 6, known as Twelfth Night, Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, and ends with Fat Tuesday, or February 13 this year.)

A royal cake, in what many consider its purest form, is a ring of brioche-like dough with a hint of vanilla, a crunchy layer of purple, green and gold sugar, and a small trinket known as a fève (usually a baby of plastic). baked inside.

“It's almost blasphemous to put cream cheese in it,” Pam Carr said the other day while making an order that a die-hard traditionalist would never make: a couple of chocolate cream cheese pies to share with her coworkers at a grocery store. “Those are the ones I like!”

The King Cakes are another front in a family divide in New Orleans. There are those who believe that adhering to tradition means refusing to abandon the way things have always been done, and those who maintain that experimentation and interpretation are not an insult to the past, but rather an homage.

“Now anyone can put anything on a king cake,” Bridgett Saylor Meinke said as she perused the drive-thru selection.

She grew up on old-school royal pie, but has been cautiously open to trying some newer varieties, like Brennan's bananas (“Absolutely delicious,” was her opinion) and Joe's Cafe's strawberry cream cheese.

“That's the one I'm looking for today,” he said.

The drive-through menu varies from week to week, written on a white board by Ms. Langlinais. The couple buys the cakes from bakeries at wholesale prices and sells them at a markup, with prices ranging from $17 to about $50 per cake. (They also come in a variety of sizes.)

On a recent weekend, there were plenty of traditional options, as well as Bavarian cream from Caluda's, an almond cake from District Donuts, varieties of boudin or crawfish from Clesi's Seafood, and lemon-vanilla curd cakes from Paw Paw's Donuts. .

The one with Vietnamese coffee filling from Dough Nguyener's Bakery sold out quickly, as did Tartine's cinnamon cream cheese option.

Langlinais wanted to entice customers with their favorite offerings from well-known places, but also push them toward pastries they might not have known about. Those at Joyce's Sweets, a bakery in Ponchatoula, almost an hour away, are a good example.

Joyce Galmon is known for her pralines, but she has been making king cakes for 25 years, filling them with a filling made from broken pralines that she couldn't sell.

“Miss Joyce has no social media,” Langlinais said. “You can only call her. She doesn’t have a website.”

In previous years, Galmon would sell up to 90 pies in a season. With the King Cake Drive-Thru, he has sold more than that in a single weekend.

Theirs is a labor-intensive process: scooping out the dough, foaming the praline filling, and then letting the cakes sit and rise for several hours. The result: a sticky, crunchy eruption of cinnamon and sugar.

“It has me on my toes,” Ms. Galmon said after delivering a new batch to the tire lot. “It was a hobby for me, but they've made it bigger.”

Despite all the excitement the drive-through has caused, it is a simple operation. From the street, it almost looks like a Covid testing site.

“No frills, as you can see,” Ms. Langlinais said, “with our tent, tables and Mike's truck.” She was referring to a tattered but reliable 2007 Kia Sedona that was missing the middle seat.

Jimmy Duckworth, the owner of Duckworth Tires, gave them a good rental deal: one king cake a week. Last week, she got her favorite, Tartine's kind of cinnamon cream cheese.

“I've been very lucky in life,” he said. “Give them a break, why not?”

He nodded toward Mr. Graves, who was busy helping customers.

“Look at it,” said Mr. Duckworth. “Everything is happy.”

A few years ago, Graves, 35, was a lawyer in Manhattan working in finance. He then moved to New Orleans and started a novel ice cream business called Bof Bars. He had no ties to New Orleans (he grew up in Chicago), but now he can't imagine leaving. He and Langlinais plan to marry in March.

Langlinais, who also owns a marketing company, grew up in a shrimping family in Biloxi, Mississippi, immersed in the elaborate world of Mardi Gras.

She became something of a king cake connoisseur. He has tried more than 100 varieties. She keeps a spreadsheet with detailed notes. (“I enjoyed the light fill, but I wish x3 was really happy,” she wrote of one encounter.)

“I know it's not a super polished operation,” said Langlinais, 33, “but we want it to feel like us.”

There have been setbacks. One day last month, Graves woke up at 3 a.m. to discover that someone had broken a window of the minivan and stolen 100 pies.

The whole effort has been exhausting: the excruciating early mornings rushing to pick up pastries at bakeries or meeting points in random parking lots. The 12-hour days standing in the drive-thru. And there have been urgent after-hours calls and texts.

“My daughter didn't tell me she had the baby!” said a friend desperate for a last-minute cake. (According to tradition, whoever finds the baby is responsible for supplying the next cake.)

The drive-thru is usually open Friday through Sunday, but customers have asked if the couple would sell pies on Fat Tuesday.

No way.

Duckworth Tires will once again be a tire store.

“I'll be partying,” Mr. Graves said.



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