A Slice of Life

Porter Square Dry CleanersPhotos by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Along with getting their clothes cleaned and pressed, Porter Square Dry Cleaners customers have also started to purchase something else: floral jelly cakes, a classic Vietnamese dessert.

The owners—Hoa and Khanh Nguyen—started Porter Square Dry Cleaners shortly after immigrating to Massachusetts from Vietnam about two decades ago. When the business moved from Elm Street to Highland Avenue, some of the previous clients followed to support the couple, and new customers quickly became regulars.

Now, while some of the regulars are catching up with Hoa, they’re shown a white wedding album filled with jelly cake photos. These cakes, called rau câu in Vietnamese, are created by Hoa’s older sister, Thuy Nguyen. 

Thuy, who often goes by Viva, came with her family to Hoa and Khanh Nguyen’s home in November 2019. Back in her hometown, Dà Lat, Thuy had a three-year-old business where she baked and sold jelly cakes. She closed her store, Rau Câu 3D, a few months before coming to America. Hoa translates for Thuy. 

She learned how to make these jelly cakes from a teacher in Vietnam. After practicing for a year, she started her own business. These gluten-free cakes have a gelatinous consistency, and are known for the three-dimensional jelly flowers that appear inside the cake. 

Thuy grew up as an artist, and she was surrounded by creativity. Her other sister creates intricate paintings and fabric dyes, and her father used to draw, but Thuy brought her craftsmanship into the kitchen. Hoa says Thuy also makes delicious egg rolls and yogurt, but rau câu is her specialty. 

“Oh, I love to eat them when we have extra,” Hoa laughs. 

Rau câu comes in various flavors including coconut, chocolate, strawberry, and coffee. The colorful flowers are made from natural vegetable dyes in Vietnam, Hoa translates. The bottom, more opaque layer is harder and holds up the cake. Thuy says these cakes, because of the drying and setting time, take her between three and five hours to make. Over the years, Thuy has perfected the technique—some people use molds to create the three-dimensional effect, but Thuy intricately draws in the realistic looking flowers by hand. 

Porter Square Dry Cleaners

This Vietnamese sweet is sparsely sold around the Greater Boston area, and other Vietnamese-Americans often purchase the dessert. But Thuy and Hoa want to share rau câu with other Americans as well, and that’s why she’s advertising it to her customers. 

One of Hoa’s customers, Steve Coughlin purchased a cake after seeing the photos at the dry cleaners.

“I came in one day, and the wife is showing me pictures of these incredible cakes, and I’m like ‘oh my god, these are so great,’” he says. “At the time, Viva had only been in the country for three weeks. Three weeks and she already had a cake business, and she didn’t speak a word of English.”

Coughlin, who has been a regular at Porter Square Dry Cleaners for around six years, purchased a larger cake for his office. Coughlin is a real estate agent, and sometimes his office gives gifts to clients during events, and he hopes that he can give more of these cakes to his clients. 

“The cakes would be perfect for us,” he says. 

Over the holiday season, Thuy’s sales went up, as she was called on to create a lot of cakes for family holiday parties. She sold a dozen cakes with holiday-themed flowers on the inside for Christmas, six cakes for New Years, and a few more for Valentine’s Day. Hoa says her customers even came back to her to say that they liked the cake. 

Smaller cakes cost between $15 and $20, while the price of larger cakes can go up to $35 or $40. Thuy also requests that cake orders be made three days in advance. 

Hoa and Thuy have big dreams for the rau câu cake business. When Hoa came to Massachusetts, her older sister helped her open the dry cleaning business. Now, Hoa wants to pay it forward and help Thuy with her ideas. Hoa hadn’t visited her siblings in Vietnam in about a decade, so she says that she’s happy that they were able to come to her and start their life here. 

Because Thuy doesn’t speak English yet, Hoa enrolled her in an English school so that she can eventually learn the language and communicate with customers. But in the meantime, the family business is thriving as Thuy helps with alterations at the dry cleaners and Hoa advertises the floral jelly cakes. 

Porter Square Dry Cleaners is located at 346 Highland Ave.

This story appears in the March/April print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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