Donuts have long been a low-cost, everyday indulgence for those seeking sweet, pillowy treats to accompany hot coffee. The classic chains—from Winchell’s to Dunkin’ to Krispy Kreme—would fry up plush, raised fritters and sugary cake donuts, but typically within a margin limited to jelly fillings and glazed or powdered finishes. Then a curious thing happened: the parochial pastry went artisanal, with a range of novel flavors and treatments that have raised the (maple) bar to new heights.
The movement can be traced to 2003 in Portland, Oregon, where the wacky destination Voodoo Doughnut opened with a mix of colorful bubble-gum topped or crisp bacon-wielding creations. Now a chain, it holds legal weddings and concerts against its house-of-horrors-meets-bright-pink motif. Anthony Bourdain visited in 2008 and wished he were drunk when eating the chocolate and peanut butter donuts.
The escapist phase swept the nation—including such variations as cotton candy, lavender, poi, guava and cheese, crème brûlée, purple potatoes and hamburger donuts. Then a movement arose for fresh ingredients, culinary precision and (sort of) healthy donuts. Sidecar, of Costa Mesa, California, famously cuts and fries donuts throughout the day to ensure warm treats and uses natural flavorings like fresh huckleberry and real vanilla bean glaze. Other Golden State purveyors have taken to steaming and baking instead of frying, and even offer vegan and gluten-free choices.
But none of this has meant the demise of the old-school shops, however. Established in 1972, the famed Donut Man in Glendora, California, known for its strawberry donuts stuffed with whole fresh berries and a bright red glaze, has expanded to downtown Los Angeles with a bustling new audience. And Randy’s Donuts, in Inglewood, California, whose giant rooftop donut has been a beacon since 1953, has inked a deal to infiltrate South Korea and the Philippines. Like most things, there’s just nothing better than the classics.