A tire shop parking lot has become a popular destination for those craving the beloved treat. The only problem: Which variety to choose?
Reporting from Metairie, La., and the kitchen of Joyce’s Sweets in Ponchatoula, where he sampled a praline-filled cake fresh from the oven.
Of course Mardi Gras is about boundless revelry: the weeks of balls and the parades that shower the streets of New Orleans with beads. But beneath all that, it is also a period of metamorphosis.
A midwinter Tuesday transforms from the most mundane of days into a festival of frivolity and vice. People shed the cocoons of their regular lives and emerge plumed in feathers and sequins.
And this year, just outside New Orleans, a tire shop that for as long as anyone can remember sold only car parts has become a bustling marketplace offering king cakes, the delicacy of the Carnival season, in just about any conceivable flavor.
All you have to do is drive up.
“Any idea of what you want?” Tiffany Langlinais asked a customer who pulled up on a Friday afternoon.
It is a daunting question at the King Cake Drive-Thru. Flaky or fluffy? Filled with cream cheese? What about strawberries, ice cream, even crawfish — or nothing more than the traditional plastic baby? Cakes from more than a dozen bakeries are on offer.
Others have had the idea to sell king cakes culled from various local bakeries, at one location, like King Cake Hub in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans. But the innovation of the King Cake Drive-Thru, which Ms. Langlinais opened in January with her fiancé, Mike Graves, is the added convenience of accessing that bounty of options without even needing to get out of the car.
The drive-through has drawn nurses headed to morning hospital shifts, parents with cars full of children, tourists on road trips and people with limited mobility or weakened immune systems keeping them from easily browsing bakeries. Even the food writer for the city’s main newspaper, The Times-Picayune, passed through.
“I’m surprised nobody thought of it before you, Mike,” David Scripter told Mr. Graves as he dropped off an order of dozens of cakes from Bittersweet Confections, a bakery started by his wife.
“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 the suburb of Metairie three days a week, often has a line of cars waiting when it opens at 7 a.m., and has sold out its inventory well before 7 p.m., its listed closing time.
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 fries of Lent. (King cake season begins on Jan. 6 — known as Twelfth Night, Epiphany or Three Kings Day — and ends with Fat Tuesday, or Feb. 13 this year.)
A king cake, in what many consider its purest form, is a ring of brioche-like dough with a dash of vanilla, a crunchy coating of purple, green and gold sugar and a small trinket known as a fève — usually a plastic baby — baked inside.
“It’s almost blasphemous to get cream cheese in it,” Pam Carr said the other day as she placed an order a staunch traditionalist never would: a pair of cream cheese and chocolate cakes to share with her co-workers at a warehouse store. “Those are the ones I like!”
King cakes are another front in a familiar New Orleans divide. There are those who believe that adhering to tradition means refusing to budge from how things have always been done, and those who maintain 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 surveyed the drive-through’s selection.
She grew up on old-school king cake but has been cautiously open to trying some newfangled varieties, like the bananas foster from Brennan’s (“Absolutely delicious,” was her take) and the strawberry cream cheese from Joe’s Cafe.
“That’s the one I’m on the hunt for today,” she said.
The drive-through’s menu varies some week to week, written on a white board by Ms. Langlinais. The couple buys the cakes from bakeries at a wholesale rate and sells them at a markup, with prices ranging from $17 to about $50 per cake. (They come in a range of sizes, too.)
On a recent weekend, there were plenty of traditional options, as well as the Bavarian cream from Caluda’s, an almond cake from District Donuts, boudin or crawfish varieties from Clesi’s Seafood, and lemon curd and vanilla bean cakes 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 Tartine.
Ms. Langlinais wanted to lure customers with their favorite offerings from well-known spots but also nudge them toward cakes they may not know. Those from Joyce’s Sweets, a bakery in Ponchatoula, almost an hour away, are a prime example.
Joyce Galmon is known for her pralines, but she has made king cakes for 25 years, stuffing them with a filling made from broken pralines she could not sell.
“Miss Joyce has no social media,” Ms. Langlinais said. “You can only call her. She has no website.”
In past years, Ms. Galmon would sell as many as 90 cakes in a season. With the King Cake Drive-Thru, she has sold more than that in a single weekend.
Hers is a labor-intensive process, teasing out the dough, lathering on the praline filling, and then letting the cakes rest and rise for several hours. The result: a gooey, crunchy eruption of cinnamon and sugar.
“It’s got me on my toes,” Ms. Galmon said after delivering a fresh batch to the tire lot. “It was a hobby for me, but they’ve made it bigger.”
For 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 and tables and Mike’s van.” She was referring to a raggedy but reliable 2007 Kia Sedona missing its middle seat.
Jimmy Duckworth, the owner of Duckworth Tires, gave them a pretty good deal on rent: a king cake a week. Last week, he got his favorite, the cinnamon cream cheese kind from Tartine.
“I’ve been very lucky in life,” he said. “Give them a break — why not?”
He nodded at Mr. Graves, who was busy helping customers.
“Look at him,” Mr. Duckworth said. “He’s all happy.”
A few years ago, Mr. Graves, 35, had been a lawyer in Manhattan, working in finance. Then he moved to New Orleans and started a novelty ice cream business called Bof Bars. He had no ties to New Orleans — he grew up in Chicago — but now he cannot imagine leaving. He and Ms. Langlinais are planning to get married in March.
Ms. Langlinais, who also owns a marketing business, grew up in a shrimping family in Biloxi, Miss., immersed in the elaborate world of Mardi Gras.
She became something of a king cake connoisseur. She has tried more than 100 varieties. She keeps a spreadsheet with detailed notes. (“Enjoyed the light filling but would want x3 for me to be truly happy,” she wrote of one encounter.)
“I know that it’s not a super refined operation,” Ms. Langlinais, 33, said, “but we want it to feel like us.”
There have been setbacks. One day last month, Mr. Graves woke up at 3 a.m. to find someone had busted a window on the minivan and stolen 100 cakes.
The whole endeavor has been exhausting: The excruciatingly early mornings hustling to collect the cakes at bakeries or rendezvous points in random parking lots. The 12-hour days on their feet at the drive-through. And there have been the urgent after-hours calls and texts.
“My kid didn’t tell me she got the baby!” said one friend desperate for a last-minute cake. (According to tradition, the one who finds the baby is responsible for supplying the next cake.)
The drive-through is usually open on Fridays through Sundays, but customers have asked if the couple would be selling cakes on Fat Tuesday.
Not a chance.
Duckworth Tires will be a tire shop again.
“I’ll be partying,” Mr. Graves said.