The tire store parking lot has become a popular destination for those craving a beloved treat. The only problem: which variety to choose?
Reporting from Metairie, La., and the kitchen of Joyce’s Sweets in Ponchatoula, where he tried a fresh-from-the-oven praline-filled cake.
Of course, Mardi Gras is all about boundless revelry: weeks of balls and parades that shower the streets of New Orleans with beads. But underneath all that, it is also a period of metamorphosis.
Tuesday in the middle of winter turns from the most ordinary days into a festival of frivolity and vice. People shed the cocoons of their regular lives and emerge from it covered in feathers and sequins.
And this year, not far from New Orleans, a tire shop that, for as long as anyone can remember, has sold only car parts, has become a bustling market offering king cakes, the delicacy of the carnival season, in almost every imaginable flavor.
All you have to do is drive away.
“Do you have any idea what you want?” Tiffany Langlinais asked a customer who stopped by Friday afternoon.
That’s the dreaded question at King Cake Drive-Thru. Fluffy or fluffy? Stuffed with cream cheese? What about strawberries, ice cream, even crabs – or nothing more than the traditional plastic baby? We offer cakes from more than ten bakeries.
Others had the idea of selling king cakes from different local bakeries in one location, such as the King Cake Hub in New Orleans’ Mid-City neighborhood. But the innovation of King Cake Drive-Thru, which Ms. Langlinais opened in January with her fiance, Mike Graves, is the added convenience of accessing that abundance of options without even having to get out of the car.
The drive-thru has attracted nurses on their morning hospital shifts, parents with cars full of children, vacationers on road trips and people with limited mobility or weakened immune systems that prevent them from easily inspecting bakeries. Even on food writer for major city newspaper, Times-Picayune, passed.
“I’m surprised no one thought of this before you, Mike,” David Scripter told Mr. Graves as he placed an order for dozens of cupcakes from Bittersweet Confections, the bakery his wife founded.
“Sometimes,” Mr. Graves said, “the best ideas are right in front of you.”
The drive-through, which takes over the parking lot of Duckworth Tires in suburban 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 7 p.m., its stated closing time.
King cakes have always been a staple of the Carnival season along the Gulf Coast, the crowning pastry served in a flurry of gluttony and good times before the rigors and fish fries of Lent. (Kingcake season begins on January 6 – known as Twelfth Night, Epiphany or Three Kings Day – and ends on Fat Tuesday, or February 13 this year.)
The king cake, in what many consider its purest form, is a ring of brioche-like dough with a hint of vanilla, a crunchy coating of purple, green and gold sugar and a little trinket known as a fève – usually a plastic baby – baked inside.
“It’s almost blasphemous to put cream cheese in it,” Pam Carr said the other day as she ordered a staunch traditionalist never: a couple of cream cheese and chocolate brownies to share with her colleagues in the warehouse. “Those are the ones I like!”
King cakes are another front in the famous New Orleans division. There are those who believe that adherence to tradition means refusing to deviate from the way things have always been done, and those who argue that experimentation and interpretation are not an insult to the past, but a tribute.
“Anyone can put anything in a king cake now,” Bridgett Saylor Meinke said as she browsed the selection at the drive-thru.
She grew up on old-school king cake, but is cautiously open to trying new varieties, such as bananas foster from Brennan’s (“Absolutely delicious,” she thought) and strawberry cream cheese from Joe’s Cafe.
“That’s the one I’m looking for today,” she said.
The drive-thru menu varies from week to week and is written on the white board by Ms. Langlinais. The couple buys cakes from bakeries at wholesale prices and sells them at a markup, with prices ranging from $17 to about $50 per cake. (And they come in a range of sizes.)
This past weekend, there were plenty of traditional options, as well as Bavarian cream from Caluda’s, almond cake from District Donuts, boudin or crab from Clesi’s Seafood, and lemon curd vanilla cake from Paw Paw’s Donuts.
The one with Vietnamese coffee filling from Dough Nguyener’s Bakery sold out quickly, as did the cinnamon cream cheese option from Tartina.
Ms. Langlinais wanted to attract customers with her favorite offerings from well-known places, but also to encourage them to try cakes they may not know. Those from Joyce’s Sweets, a bakery in Ponchatoula, nearly an hour away, are a great example.
Joyce Galmon is famous for her pralines, but for 25 years she’s been making king cakes, filling them with broken pralines she couldn’t sell.
“Miss Joyce has no social media,” Ms Langlinais said. “You can only call her. She doesn’t have a website.”
In past years, Mrs. Galmon sold as many as 90 cakes a season. With the King Cake Drive-Thru, she sold more than that in one weekend.
Hers is a labor-intensive process, splitting the dough, foaming the praline filling, and then letting the cakes rest and rise for several hours. The result: a gooey, crunchy eruption of cinnamon and sugar.
“He kept me on my toes,” Ms. Galmon said after taking delivery of a new batch of tires. “It was a hobby of mine, but they made it even bigger.”
For all the excitement of the ride, it’s 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 and tables and Mike’s van.” She was referring to the rugged but reliable 2007 Kia Sedona that lacks a middle seat.
Jimmy Duckworth, owner of Duckworth Tires, gave them a pretty good rental deal: a king cake a week. Last week he got his favorite, cinnamon cream cheese from Tartina.
“I’ve been very lucky in my life,” he said. “Give them a break – why not?”
He nodded to Mr. Graves, who was busy helping customers.
“Look at him,” said Mr. Duckworth. “He’s all happy.”
A few years ago, Mr. Graves, 35, was a lawyer in Manhattan, working in finance. He then moved to New Orleans and started a new ice cream business called Bof Bars. He had no connection to New Orleans—he grew up in Chicago—but now he can’t imagine leaving. He and Ms. Langlinais plan to marry in March.
Ms. Langlinais, who also owns a marketing business, grew up in a shrimp family in Biloxi, Miss., immersed in the elaborate world of Mardi Gras.
She became a real connoisseur of cakes. She tried more than 100 varieties. She keeps a spreadsheet with detailed notes. (“Enjoyed a light fill, but would like x3 to be truly happy,” she wrote of one encounter.)
“I know it’s not a super-refined operation,” said Ms. Langlinais, 33, “but we want it to feel like us.”
There were delays. One day last month, Mr. Graves woke up at 3 a.m. to find someone had broke the van window and stole 100 cakes.
The whole endeavor was exhausting: a painful early morning rush to collect cakes from bakeries or meeting places in random parking lots. 12-hour days on your feet on the road. And there were emergency calls and after-hours texts.
“My kid didn’t tell me she had a baby!” said one friend who was desperate for a last-minute cake. (By tradition, whoever finds the baby is responsible for supplying the next cake.)
The aisle is usually open Friday to Sunday, but customers asked if the couple would be selling cakes on Shrove Tuesday.
Duckworth Tires will once again be a tire shop.
“I’ll have fun,” said Mr. Graves.