SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
Perhaps the first clue should have been the giant doughnut protruding skyward from an otherwise innocuous roadside cafe en route from the airport. More so than the iconic sign nestled into the Hollywood hills as a beacon for those chasing a starlet’s dream, or even the plentiful palm and eucalyptus trees that inspire a deep exhale for those fleeing harsher climates, it is the mid-century plaster pastry atop Randy’s Donuts in Inglewood, just off the 405, that should herald to the visitor, “forget everything you believe. Los Angeles is all about the donuts.”
If, like me, you see the world through an East Coast lens, this may surprise you. When I visited friends in The Big Orange, I was prepared for the chic sidewalk cafes with avocados aplenty, the neighborhood joints with Alice Waters tribute gardens, and fresh seafood served with an actual view of the ocean. I expected kale smoothies, kombucha sorbet, and paleo-everything.
I was not expecting the doughnuts. Glutenous, glazy, gut-busting doughnuts. As part of my L.A. culinary tour, my friends brought me to DK’s Donuts and Bakery, located at the end of a strip mall (already a thing of suspicion to a New Yorker) in Santa Monica. But my skepticism was stopped in its tracks once inside. I was greeted by stacks of bright pink boxes and scores of doughnuts, many of them purple, with every imaginable topping: doughnuts adorned with cereal, with glitter, with bacon, with flowers. Doughnuts split and stuffed with ice cream, with cookie dough, with other doughnuts. Doughnuts made from Filipino purple yams. One might easily imagine all these dazzling creations were born of the union between a hallucinogenic pastry chef and a unicorn. But the story here wasn’t one of magic, just one of a hardworking Cambodian family who’d been in the doughnut business since the 1980s. More to come on that score.
And, as I would learn, this was no one-off. The L.A. doughnut scene is a capital-T thing. Once I had been made aware of the doughnuts, I couldn’t unsee them. They were everywhere: tucked into every strip mall, on every block, giving palm trees a good fight in the game for sheer numbers. An occasional chain store made an appearance, but for the most part these were all singular, independent businesses.
Using Yelp as a guide, even accounting for duplicates and the occasional chain, there are well over 600 doughnut shops in Los Angeles County, most of whom use the term “donut” in their names. By comparison, New York City tops out around 150, a good majority of which are chains, and the rest are mostly bakeries or coffee shops who produce doughnuts but not as a feature. Chicago doesn’t even come close.
So, what gives? How can a town with a reputation for juice cleanses and avocado toast also boast the most doughnut shops per capita? (Or did I just answer my own question?)
“L.A. seems to have the health and happiness balance down,” offers Katie Poppe, CEO and co-founder of Blue Star Donuts; “We have customers who plan their five-mile beach run to end at our doorstep.”
Reading histories of L.A.’s top doughnut shops tells a story in three parts. On one end, stalwart mom-and-pop nostalgia businesses who’ve been holding down the doughnut fort since the 1950s when we didn’t know yet about cholesterol: Blinkie’s, The Donut Hole, Primo’s, and Randy’s (of giant roadside donut fame); the places locals go for classic yeasty, glazed, and buttermilk-spiked doughnuts. On the other end of the spectrum, there are a handful of newer, progressive shops that display a more adventurous, chef-driven approach: native businesses such as Birdie’s, Cofax, Trejo’s, and Sidecar. These are the places to seek when you have a craving that only a lemon-thyme-pistachio, Chinese five-spice, or (improbable though it may seem) nacho doughnut can manage. Also in this category, a number of out-of-town superstars came to claim their bite of L.A.’s doughnut landscape: Washington D.C.’s Astro Doughnuts, San Francisco’s Donut Farm, Portland’s infamous Voodoo Doughnuts and the aforementioned Blue Star.
When asked why an out-of-town business might try to enter a potentially intimidating, already huge doughnut scene, Poppe suggests it was an easy decision: “Los Angeles was at the top of the list of cities with an adventurous spirit.” And, obviously, a built-in love of doughnuts.
But it’s the third category that might hold some clue as to the sheer number of doughnut shops and their sustainability. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a massive surge in the doughnut business, beginning with Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian immigrant who fled the chaos of the Khmer Rouge. After receiving a position in Winchell’s Donut’s manager training program, he went on to purchase his own donut shops, and eventually sponsored visas for many more Cambodian immigrants, many of whom in turn went on to open their own doughnut businesses. This is not uncommon in American cities—pockets of immigrant communities share connections and resources and eventually end up with a stronghold on a particular market. Now Los Angeles doughnut shops operated by Cambodian families account for about 80 percent of the market. A few notable shops include California Donuts, known for their design elements, Daily Donuts, and the aforementioned DK’s, where I enjoyed a starchy, almost savory, purple Ube (yam) donut.
I spoke with Mayly Tao, who inherited DK’s Donuts and Bakery from her parents, who began the shop in 1981. She echoed Poppe’s statements about L.A. being a city of balance, where doughnuts are ingrained in the fabric of the culture and a nostalgic, authentic experience enjoying a revival since the 2000s. ”Contrary to popular belief,” she laughed, “the girls with the kale salads and juice cleanses are also the ones enjoying and sneaking in a late-night doughnut or two.” Tao also painted a very personal picture of how the early success of Ted Ngoy (her great-uncle) in the doughnut industry became a chapter in the American Dream for a generation of Los Angeles bakers. “Without him,” she explained, “Cambodians wouldn’t have had a guiding light about how to survive in America, coming here with nothing. Doughnut shops are what sent my brother and I to school and gave us a fighting chance with education.”
Perhaps I’d had it backwards all along. Perhaps Los Angeles became a city known for its health consciousness because of the staggering availability of incredible doughnuts. As for who does doughnuts the best in Los Angeles? Fuggedaboudit. That’s like asking a New Yorker to choose a best pizza. You’ll never get a unanimous vote. Fortunately, in the City of Angels, the pursuit of a great doughnut is heavenly one.
Header image courtesy of Birdies.