When he opened up shop in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, customers lined the street to buy Ong Co’s hockey-puck-sized cakes, a chewy pastry heralding the arrival of the autumn harvest.
Decades later, when Vietnam was torn in half, Ong Co headed to the democratic south and reopened his store in Saigon, later passing the business along to his son.
Now his grandchildren carry on, selling mooncakes and fragrant pastries from a bakery in Little Saigon, the flagship in a century-old family business that stretches from Vietnam to Orange County.
And in the final days of September, with the Mid-Autumn Festival approaching, the bakery was in full swing as people drove from all over Southern California to Dong Hung Vien to fill colorful boxes with the confection. They give the packaged tins as gifts or carefully unpack them, setting the mooncakes on altars to pay tribute to ancestors.
Mooncakes fly off the shelves this time of year in bakeries that cater to Vietnamese and Chinese as they prepare for the days-long celebration culminating Sunday with the harvest moon, the fattest moon of the year.
Shoppers snap up the treats filled with goodies such as lotus seeds, dates, dried fruit and egg yolks. The round shape symbolizes the moon and family unity.
For Phuong Hoang, though, there’s no time to indulge. Every fall, he flies to Orange County from his home in Oregon, bunking with his sister’s family for a month to help guide the methodical and slightly secretive cake-making process. In all, eight grandchildren oversee bakeries in Vietnam, Portland and Westminster.
The first crew arrives at Dong Hung Vien at sunrise, a blend of Latino and Vietnamese workers. Twenty employees split two shifts — 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., and 2 to 10 p.m.
The September rush comes in two waves: Early in the month workers frantically prepare for wholesale demand, fulfilling orders from Texas, Washington, Florida, Virginia and other states with large immigrant communities.
As the month draws to a close, over-the-counter business reaches a frenzy as families prepare for the holiday — when parents and children gather with colorful lanterns for family feasts.
In the bakery’s kitchen, Hoang’s younger sister, Loan, prepares the dough, throwing in a little bit of this and that. Sure, there are the flour, eggs, sugar and butter, but some of the portions and ingredients are a mystery. “The owners do the prep work. It’s their privilege,” Phuong Hoang notes.
Workers don’t keep track of amounts or fillings and they don’t know specific recipes. At the end of the assembly process, Tam Phan — the husband of one of the granddaughters — places the doughy lumps under a metal mold, shaping them and stamping each with a distinctive red number to identify the flavors each cake contains.
By the time customers squeeze into the bustling Asian bakeries in the final days before the full moon, there often isn’t time for browsing. Many grab order lists, checking off what they want as if ordering sushi. The cakes sell for $4.50 to $9.50.
“This is one of the best shops for mooncakes,” said Thanh Cong, who drove to Dong Hung Vien from the San Fernando Valley to pick up four boxes, each containing four pastries. “I used to eat at their store in Vietnam. And I always remembered how good it is,” he said.
“I have to taste different types of mooncakes before I can decide how to fill a box,” said Khanh Nguyen, a Garden Grove resident. She chose two flavors to take home for her mother to sample as they burn incense and eat vegetarian meals for ancestral worship.
“Once we decide, I come back and get a lot more,” Nguyen said.
Some customers, like San Diego resident Lan Le, pick up enough cakes, called banh trung thu in Vietnamese, to freeze a few. “It can taste good in the winter,” she said.
It’s so busy in late September that up to 15 workers wait on customers in the 4,000-square-foot bakery. And although Dong Hung Vien offers more than 100 other pastries and serves up the popular banh mi sandwiches, it sells mooncakes only during the autumn festival.
Mooncake flavors vary, from salty to sweet, and they are stuffed with fillings such as roast chicken, sausage, eggs, taro or the distinctive-smelling durian fruit. More than 20 varieties of pastries called banh nuong are baked to a golden brown. The banh deo, on the other hand, are not baked and arrive soft and gooey, blended with sugar water.
“Perfect for weaker teeth,” Hoang says.
“It’s never been an acquired taste for me,” his niece Kathy Phan says. But she concedes it smells good and is “what I grew up around.”
As an economics major at UC San Diego, Phan plans on getting her MBA after graduation. Her mother, Loan Hoang, hopes she will put the degree to use managing the bakery in the future.
“Our generation,” Phan says, “definitely needs something to remind us what our roots are.”