LA’s Landmark Phoenix Bakery, Chinatown

MV S3650-LR Phoenix Bakery LA-680

Famous for its fresh strawberry whipped-cream cake, the Phoenix Bakery has been serving traditional Chinese pastries and an increasing variety of other sweets since 1938. We visited this venerable Los Angeles institution during last year’s Lunar New Year festivities and found that it has a fascinating history.

Earlier, I wrote about the Firecracker 5K/10K Run, an annual Chinatown New Year’s event. In 2019, we were spectators, not runners, cheering the participants, enjoying the entertainment and exploring the area at walking pace. That’s how we finally made it into the bakery.

We spotted the distinctive sign (above), a horde of customers headed for the door, and a crowd already inside. It was obviously the place to be, and we joined the happy throng.

An Abundance of Cakes and Pastries

When we got inside, the small storefront was bustling, with virtually every table taken and a steady line at the counter. The cases were filled with a variety of sweets as diverse as the Los Angeles community — from Chinese almond cookies and winter melon cakes to French croissants, eclairs, tres leches cake and other international selections.

In his pastry painting phase, Wayne Thiebaud would have loved this place. Regrettably, there was too much hustle and bustle for my food photography that day, but I did manage to snap these clever Year of the Pig cupcakes:

MV S3652-LR Yr of Pig Cupcakes-680

The counter staff were friendly and patiently answered our questions as we investigated the offerings on display. Our mission was to try some traditional Chinese pastries, so we left the other sweets for another time.  The pretty winter melon cake (on the left below) had a pleasing filling and inspired this “home studio” photo composition.

MV S3688-LR Chinese sweets on White Clover-680

A Longstanding Family Enterprise

One of Chinatown’s few remaining original shops, the Phoenix Bakery celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2018. Chinese immigrants F.C. Chan and his wife, Wai Hing, founded the business in 1938 when the Central Plaza was just opening.

The Chan’s original idea was to create a community gathering place, producing traditional Chinese pastries and cookies not locally available at the time. Beginning with Chinese almond cookies, winter melon pastries and seasonal moon cakes, they branched into a variety of other, culture-spanning sweets.

In the 1940s, Mr. Chan’s brother joined the business and created its signature fresh strawberry whipped-cream cake.  The cake gained a reputation, and in the 1970s, the company website notes, the bakery became famous throughout LA for making this “not so Chinese” cake.

After more than 80 years, the bakery is still owned and operated by the Chan family, with second and third generation family members in various roles.  It continues to enjoy a loyal following,  from generation to generation,  and to be the traditional “go-to” place for that special cake for birthdays, weddings and other celebrations.

MV S3651-LR LA Phoenix Bakery window-680

That Timeless Logo

There’s a story behind the Phoenix Bakery logo and mascot as well. Celebrated Chinese-American artist, Tyrus Wong,  designed the charming, shyly smiling boy with the red-ribboned package behind his back.

A highly skilled and versatile artist Wong had a long and varied career. Perhaps best known for his role as lead production illustrator for Disney’s 1942 film, Bambi, he continued to work in a variety of media well into his 90s.

Happy Lunar New Year to all! May 4718 be a sweet year for you.

Copyright M. Vincent 2020. Photos copyright M. Vincent 2019–2020.

Bakery history sources: https://www.phoenixbakeryinc.com/ and 2018 LAist article by Liz Ohanesian on the 80th anniversary of the business.

The Phoenix Bakery is located at 969 N. Broadway, Los Angeles 90012, adjacent to Chinatown’s Central Plaza.

Celebrating Lunar New Year on the Run in Los Angeles

 

 

Happy Year of the Pig! With Lunar New Year celebrations underway worldwide, I want to highlight the festivities coming up in the heart of LA’s historic Chinatown the weekend of February 16–17.

The Firecracker 5K/10K Run

The centerpiece of the festivities is the popular Firecracker 5K/10K Run, which marks its 41st anniversary this year. The Firecracker organization indicates that it’s the largest, longest-running Lunar New Year charity race in the United States. 

Established in 1978, the Firecracker festival has expanded to include a kiddie run, bike rides and its newest event, the Paw’r Dog walk — all reflecting its goal to promote community health and fitness. Event proceeds benefit local elementary schools and a variety of nonprofit organizations that serve local neighborhoods.

A Fun and Challenging 10K

The Firecracker 10K has many fans and draws a varied field with several impressive competitors. For some local runners, it’s an annual tradition. The Lunar New Year setting, scenic course and promise of fabulous views attracted me to this race. Running it made me a fan too.

The opening ceremonies in Chinatown’s central plaza, with lion dancers and the traditional lighting of 100,000 firecrackers — to chase away evil spirits and bring good luck — give runners an exciting send-off. 

There’s a steep climb early on, but running the hills to the spectacular city view at the summit is a rewarding challenge. An exhilarating descent and a winding road through LA’s peaceful Elysian Park lead back to the finish. The congenial atmosphere among the participants is another plus.

To learn more about running this race, click here for the prior post detailing my experience.

Runners can generally count on clever Firecracker T-shirt and medal designs to commemorate meeting the challenge. Here are this year’s flying pig run/walk and bike ride T-shirts:  

 

 

 

You can see some imaginative designs from earlier years in my prior post and the Paw’r section below.

Run/Walk and Biking Events Schedule

This year, the 5K, 10K and Kiddie races, and 5K/10K walks, all take place on Sunday, February 17. The 20- and 40-mile bike rides and Paw’r Dog walk (below) take place on Saturday, February 16.  Event day registration is available. You’ll find schedule, course and registration details for all events here: http://www.firecracker10k.org/.

2019 Paw’er Dog Walk

The pig rules for 2019, but dogs will still have their day with the return of the Paw’r, which debuted at last year’s Year of the Dog festivities.

Firecracker Dog Shirt-2018 (640x640)

It’s a 2K stroll with many historic and cultural landmarks along the route. Canine participants receive a doggie goodie bag and T-shirt. Event proceeds are donated to local animal rescue organizations.

For more information, guidelines and registration: https://firecracker10k.org/dog-walk.  Be sure to scroll down to the course description for the sights you’ll see.

The Firecracker Festival

In addition to the running, walking and biking events, the two-day festival features live entertainment, arts and crafts, food and vendors. See the entertainment schedule here: https://firecracker10k.org/festival#contentA variety of multicultural music and dance performances are part of this year’s lineup.

 A Community Celebration

The Firecracker festival celebrates the diversity and talent of Los Angeles and brings its multicultural community together in a well-attended event with something for everyone to enjoy. If you’re visiting the city that weekend, join the festivities for an LA experience beyond the guidebooks and tourist attractions.

Do you have a community race you enjoy running? Why do you like it and return to it?

 

Copyright M. Vincent 2019

Firecracker Run photos (dragon dance, Year of the Pig T-shirts, Year of the Dog graphic) copyright L.A. Chinatown Firecracker Run Committee 2019.

Runners’ feet photo copyright Brad Nixon 2018, used with permission.

All other photos, copyright M. Vincent 2019.

 

Runners and Dragons and Dogs, Oh My!

Where do they all converge? No, it’s not in a new Hollywood movie caper, but it is in LA – at the 2018 Firecracker 5K/10K Run that begins in the heart of Chinatown. Opening ceremonies with a dragon dance.  A 100,000-firecracker start-off for runners.  And, for this Year of the Dog, a special event for our canine friends. The Firecracker Run has all of these and more.

If you’re visiting Los Angeles during the Lunar New Year celebration and want to experience something beyond the usual tourist attractions, consider this wonderfully colorful local run with an associated festival. If you live in greater LA or nearby and haven’t discovered it, it’s a fun and friendly run and opportunity for another new year celebration.

This year, the 5K, 10K and Kiddie runs all take place on Sunday, February 25. You can register onsite on race day if you decide to make it a spontaneous adventure. Dogs and bikers have their day on Saturday the 24th.  See details, course and registration for all events here: http://www.firecracker10k.org/.

Running shoes Brad Nixon 5537 (640x327)

Our 10K Run Experience

The Firecracker Run celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. I discovered it in 2003, the Year of the Ram, when my partner and I were looking for a local 10K. Who could resist the historic Chinatown setting, cultural festivities and promise of fabulous city views?

There was the matter of that steep climb to Angel’s Point Summit, but we welcomed the challenge and promptly signed up. We enjoyed the course and congenial atmosphere so much we vowed to return, and made it back in 2011 – the Year of the Rabbit. We couldn’t miss celebrating our mutual Chinese zodiac year or the race swag with the great rabbit design:

The T-shirts and medal designs are especially appealing this year too (click on photos for larger image):

The 10K course winds through lovely Elysian Park, with views of downtown and neighborhood areas that even Angelenos don’t commonly see. While views from the top were stunning, we also particularly enjoyed the course descent and running down the shady, tree-lined road toward the finish. It felt like flying after climbing the hill.

We found this a well-managed run, and one where runners and walkers could take their own pace without impeding each other. Participants spanned varied competitive levels; on the “rabbit run,” many stopped to gaze at the vistas, take a breath, or shoot a selfie before moving on.

The first year we ran, it was so cold I couldn’t stop shaking as I stood in my shorts waiting for the start, grateful to be wearing a timeworn hoodie to cast off before the gun. The next time, it was as mild as an early spring day. Both times, we had one of those clear, sunny, energizing LA winter mornings, perfect for a scenic run.

2018 Year of the Dog Paw’er Walk

A dog walk was added for this year, with T-shirts and goodie bags for doggy participants:

Firecracker Dog Walk (640x640)

It’s a leisurely walk through Chinatown with many historic and landmark sights. For details and online registration: http://www.firecracker10k.org/doggy-walk. (Be sure to scroll down to the website’s course description for what you’ll see.) Pet Fest features dog nutrition and wellness information.

The Firecracker Weekend Festival

The Firecracker Run is part of a two-day festival that includes live entertainment, vendors and special activities for Kiddie Run participants, in addition to the running and biking events. Event proceeds benefit local elementary schools and community nonprofits.

Beyond the Guidebooks

My partner and I have found on our travels that rising early to take a run is a great way to see more of a place when your visit is limited – and to connect with its human, neighborhood side. Our morning runs in Venice and Nice are unforgettable examples. If you’re visiting this vast metropolis where I live, perhaps this run/walk will provide a memorable LA experience for you.

Regrettably, after a vicious bout of bronchitis with lingering after-effects, I won’t be running the Firecracker this year, but I hope some of my readers will.

Have you run this race? Will you be doing it for the first time this year? Please leave a comment.

 

Copyright M. Vincent 2018. Firecracker Run photos copyright L.A. Chinatown Firecracker Run Committee 2018, used with permission. Running shoes photo copyright Brad Nixon 2018, used with permission.