When Harry Pham came to Toronto from Saigon in 2018 as a student, he carried with him an immense talent for cooking and ambition to open a Vietnamese food spot in the city one day.
Little did he know that a romance and the crisis of the pandemic would give rise to Là Lá Bakeshop, a modern Vietnamese bakery and one-of-a-kind presence in Toronto. It’s a name that rolls off the tongue, taking subtle inspiration from the ginkgo tree with its beautiful fan-shaped leaves. A native to Asia that found its way to North America, ginkgo is a prime example of the shop’s motto, “east going west.”
Just as the pandemic hit Toronto in March 2020, Pham found himself out of his full-time restaurant job and spending more time cooking up familiar flavors of Vietnam in his kitchen. Peculiar but trendy baked goods such as sweet-and-salty pork floss rolls, with roasted seaweed or salted egg finishes, were a particular hit among his friends.
The compliments motivated Pham and Brian Tran — partners in both business and life — to start selling the rolls and more online to the local Vietnamese community that summer.
It wasn’t long until the hopeful couple gathered a few of their closest friends to discuss the idea of a physical store and pooled their money to make it happen.
“We were a bunch of ambitious people who want to fulfill our dream of bringing authentic Vietnamese tastes to Canada that we feel are missing currently,” said Tran.
Tran calls the bakeshop “a Toronto story.” The city was crowned “most multicultural” in the world by the BBC in 2016, with over half of its residents born in another country.
Tran himself immigrated with his family to Canada at age 3 and comes from a background in communication and design. But he is the only core team member who hadn’t arrived from Vietnam in recent years: beside Harry Pham, Michelle Pham is a businesswoman and former founder of a startup in Saigon, Hana Le from Danang is a graduate of George Brown College’s pastry arts program, and Krissy Ngo is a zestful 19-year-old from Gia Lai who is studying at York University.
“It's an interesting international story that relates to both Vietnamese who’ve been here a long time and who are coming more recently, and the differences in life experiences that brings,” said Tran. “We want to bring not just a nostalgic feeling of Vietnam, but what it is and will be.”
Là Lá lies proudly on Bloor Street West just off Spadina Avenue, in a vibrant and diverse neighborhood that has allowed its customer base to expand from all Vietnamese when it first opened, to about 60% now from other cultural backgrounds.
While it may be their first time trying Vietnamese desserts, the non-Vietnamese customers especially love the house’s durian cake, lava bun and Vietnamese coffee tiramisu, just to name a few. Since opening its doors in September 2021, Là Lá has closed daily with everything sold out — always hustling to bake up to 100 orders or 300 treats weekly.
The menu features an array of experimental Vietnamese treats and is a constant work in progress, developed mainly by Pham — the member with the most food and beverage experience. Là Lá’s goal is simple: “to bring a different side of the country that people [in Toronto] may not have seen before,” according to Tran.
Said Pham: “There are so many delicious Vietnamese baked goods that we grew up with, like bánh xôi vị, bánh bò nướng… But what Canada currently knows are things like sponge cakes and bread. That’s why I wanted to approach this market by fusing the very distinct Vietnamese taste itself with foreign baking techniques, rather than serving our more traditional foods just yet.”
While contrasting ideologies are often stereotyped as the barrier between Vietnam and its diaspora, Là Lá’s story is living proof of the opposite. The bakeshop isn’t just adored by the local neighborhood’s sweet tooths but also well-received by Vietnamese Canadians.
Tran calls it a “wonderful opportunity” to be able to connect with this large demographic — a factor that assures him they’re on the right track to “bring a new energy” of rapidly-developing Vietnam to Toronto.
“There's no politics here,” said Pham. “The Vietnamese-Canadian community knows from the news that a big part of our team is from Vietnam, but they don't care. As long as we’re Vietnamese, they're proud of what we do.”
Tran says his parents, who left Vietnam some 35 years ago, are especially happy that he has a chance to work with Vietnamese natives, grow deeper into his roots and, most importantly, improve his mother tongue.
“Instead of just the Hai Phong one I grew up with, I’m now listening to my teammates’ accents from all over the country,” said Tran. “English is a very flat language, while in Vietnamese there are layers of respect you have to show based on your age or status, which is something that affects business relationships as well.”
Although rolling franchise offers and the possibility of new locations in Toronto are keeping them busy, the team is excited about maybe one day opening a branch in Vietnam.
“This bakeshop was never just our dream,” said Pham. “I think it’s safe to say that our establishment represents the wishes of the Vietnamese community here, so we’re very grateful for their support.”