It's the cake that has fueled hundreds of thousands of birthdays, weddings and office parties across Los Angeles.
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.
"People lined up down the block. Unbelievable! If they knew me, they would come around back to get cakes."
By then, Lun's brother, motivated by not being able to get bank loans despite having a successful business, had opened Cathay Bank, Southern California's first Chinese American-owned bank, in 1962 and then East-West Bank a decade later.
"I used to tell him, 'You make the green dough, I make the cookie dough,'" Lun says.
The second generation of Chans already was ensconced in the life of the bakery: trimming strawberries, sweeping floors, greasing cake pans. Youlen, like his siblings and cousins, started helping out when he was 12. "It was mandatory in this family," he says.
Acquaintances recall Kellogg Chan, one of Fung Chow's sons and a lawyer-turned-businessman, showing up at card games dusting flour off his clothes. But it was Youlen who carried the baker's torch. "I just sort of fell into it," he says. He attended the American Institute of Baking in Kansas and has streamlined production.
Youlen's at the bakery most days, often in a white short-sleeved shirt, shorts and a white apron, overseeing the cake-making assembly line. Cakes are baked in a heavy-duty Chubco, a revolving-tray oven that works like a Ferris wheel and is about the size of a mini van. Its five shelves are loaded one at a time, and the shelves (each fits five sheet pans) rotate during baking.
The batter -- eggs, flour, sugar, oil, water -- isn't mixed by hand but in a commercial mixer. "My dad always did things in smaller batches," Youlen says, "but we wouldn't be able to make enough cakes."
On a good weekend, Phoenix will make 400 to 500 cakes, says Craig Chan, Youlen's second cousin (Kellogg's son), who helps manage the bakery.
A small battalion constructs the cakes on cardboard bases: first cake layer; whipped cream; strawberries; more whipped cream; second cake layer; then "total enrobement" with whipped cream and a thin layer of nondairy topping that makes the cake especially white. They deftly toss sliced almonds on the sides.
Brothers Manuel and Rafael Diaz, 38-year Phoenix veterans, put on the finishing touches. Armed with pastry bags and rose tips, they apply the roses, leaves and scrolled edges on the cake.
"My brother does it different," Rafael says. "You can tell which cakes are his and which are mine." But they both learned from Youlen, who studied with the late Larry D. Powell, author of "Larry Powell's Big Book of Cake Decorating."
It doesn't hurt its continuing popularity that the cake has always been reasonably priced; an 8-inch round that serves up to 12 costs less than $24. It comes in a box with the bakery's logo -- an image of a chubby boy in a robe hiding a pastry box behind his back, created in the '40s by artist Tyrus Wong, who painted the dragon mural in Central Plaza.
"There's some dispute in the family about who it's modeled after," Craig says. "But we think it's Kelly," his uncle, an accountant who also helps manage the business.
Like much of the rest of Chinatown, Phoenix Bakery may have lived through its peak. There was an attempt to expand to other locations, which was abandoned. Yet customers still come in a fairly steady stream, ordering cakes ("Can I get purple flowers?" "Yes." "Can you write something in Chinese?" "Yes.").
In a lot of ways, Phoenix is a throwback. It doesn't eschew shortening or lard. Many of the pastries are the same as were offered decades ago. Other items might be considered oddball: Besides eclairs and cream puffs, you'll find Jordan almonds and Dutch mints alongside pizza buns and Jamaican beef patties.
But mention Phoenix to an Angeleno and the response is so often, "I know that bakery. That's my favorite cake."