You've probably had it: two layers of soft yellow sponge cake that sandwich a filling of fresh strawberries and fluffy whipped cream, frosted all over with yet more whipped cream, ringed with toasted almonds on the sides and decorated with red, blue or pink roses on top. It might have said, "Thank you for all your hard work," "Congratulations, Sarge" or "Happy Birthday, Sinook!"
Phoenix Bakery's signature strawberry cake rose from the imagination of one Chinese American baker, Lun Chan, now almost 88 years old. And for all the buttercream-frosted, marzipan-enrobed and ganache-filled cakes from modern-retro or Euro-inclined bakeries in town, it remains what is probably L.A.'s most popular cake.
Not bad for a cake that is more than six decades old, a bakery icon that has been there for all the good times (anniversaries, graduations, job promotions), and some of the bad (goings-away, layoffs).
Located in Chinatown on Broadway Street near Bamboo Lane, Phoenix is a two-story, blue-roofed pagoda of a bakery now run by the second and third generations of the Chan family. Lun's son Youlen, 53, is head of production, and because even bakeries have to try to keep up with the times, he has expanded its offerings in the last year to include dim sum and red velvet cupcakes.
"It used to be croissants, but then people didn't like it. They liked bagels. Now, it's cupcakes," says Lun Chan, who retired in the '80s but occasionally drops by the bakery, recently in a khaki suit, carrying a burgundy umbrella and wearing big, gold-trimmed, crystal-accented sunglasses (a look that might be described as Kim Jong Il meets Kanye West). "It goes in cycles."
But his strawberry cake is still the engine of Phoenix's business, even if business isn't what it used to be. And while Chinatown prepares for this year's Moon Festival and the bakery's schedule is interrupted by moon cake making (see related story), a majority of customers come for the cake.
"I've been coming here for over 30 years," says Judy Scales, who lives on the Westside. "I've bought maybe hundreds of cakes. So light, so refreshing. What a lot of people don't realize is you can special order it with peaches. Bananas are good too."
There are 16 cake sizes, from a 4-inch round to a full sheet. You can request banana, pineapple, custard, lemon curd or chocolate mousse filling (peach only when available). You can have half the cake with strawberries and the other half with bananas -- or even strawberries mixed with bananas. But it is always two layers. "A true two-layer cake," Youlen says. "We have a reputation for making a tall cake."
The early days
Lun Chan's late older brother, Fung Chow Chan, and his wife, Wai Hing, opened the bakery in 1938, the year Chinatown's Central Plaza was built.
The original bakery was located a few blocks south of where Phoenix is now. Back then, the Chans were selling sesame cookies and almond cookies to dime stores and chop suey houses. "Oh, it was good business. There was chop suey all over!" Lun says. "Danny Kaye used to come and buy sesame cookies."
After a stint in the Army during World War II, Lun returned to the U.S. in 1943 and studied baking at the Frank Wiggins Trade School (now the Los Angeles Trade Technical College). He went to his native Hong Kong for several months to hone his skills in making traditional Chinese pastries.
Back at Phoenix, Lun developed recipes: Chinese flaky pastries filled with black bean, lotus or winter melon, cookies, meringues. "I even used to bake apple pie, with lard in the crust. So flaky!" Lun says.
And the cake.
As Lun remembers it, it was during a tour of East Coast bakeries in the late '40s with the Southern California Master Bakers Retailers Assn. that he came across the strawberry shortcakes that inspired his own version. "Put more strawberries, put more," he says he thought to himself. "Everybody loves strawberries."
Lun's cake was born at the same time that the recipe for American chiffon cake went public. It was a recipe said to have been invented by a Los Angeles insurance agent fittingly named Harry Baker who replaced the butter in French génoise with vegetable oil, resulting in an especially light and airy cake. Baker sold the recipe to General Mills in 1947.
Lun calls his "a Chinese formula" but also says it's a recipe that an advisor at Frank Wiggins helped develop. "It's really spongy, nice and spongy," Lun says. "I beat the eggs, folded [the batter] by hand."
Lun's cake took off slowly. At first, just two or three a day were sold. But by the time Phoenix had moved into its current larger location in 1977, word had spread about the bakery's not-too-sweet and "not so Chinese" cake. Strawberries were delivered 100 to 200 crates at a time. The bakery sold as many as 1,000 cakes on a busy Saturday, Lun says.