While some doughnut shops keep it strictly traditional, for others the sky’s the limit. (Courtesy: Astro Doughnuts)
By Dan Myers
There are few treats more delicious than a doughnut fresh out of the fryer. And from a Denver institution to a California bakery helmed by one of the country’s most renowned chefs, we’ve tracked down America’s 10 best.
Before we get to our list, though, there’s one important question worth asking, and it’s a trickier one than you might think: What, exactly, is a doughnut? It is any sort of sweetened, fried pastry? Well, not exactly. For our purposes, we’re defining a doughnut as an item that you would expect to see in a doughnut shop: the familiar ones we know and love (of both the raised and cake varieties), crullers, apple fritters, and other doughnut-shop classics — you know them when you see them.
For this reason, the cronut, an invention that’s really only 50 percent doughnut (the other half is a croissant), and regional specialties like the sopapilla and the beignet, which are completely distinct foods that you don’t find in everyday doughnut shops, weren’t considered for our ranking. There are plenty of amazing true-to-form doughnuts out there, so we hewed as closely to tradition as possible (while keeping room for wild creativity, of course). We also stuck to doughnuts from non-chain bakeries and doughnut shops, as opposed to the dessert menus at restaurants.
In order to assemble our ranking, we incorporated doughnuts from our own previous rankings as well as existing rankings both in print and online; we also combed regional guides and review sites to track down beloved local institutions that haven’t gotten much ink. We stuck to strict criteria in looking for the best individual doughnuts in America: Freshness is key, as great doughnuts need to be served right out of the fryer. Are these legendary doughnuts that have become things of cultish devotion at the shop that sells them? We considered both glazed and extravagantly topped creations, but there needed to be a balance between all the components, be it bacon or blueberry jelly. Most important, these doughnuts need to be groan-inducingly good: fresh, soft, gooey, perfectly proportioned, and intended to leave you wanting just one more bite.
Another quality that makes doughnuts such a wonderful food is the fact that they’re usually inexpensive: World-class doughnut shops are oftentimes humble, family-run operations, selling their wares for sometimes less than a dollar. Anyone can experience a world-class doughnut for pocket change, which means it’s a truly democratic treat.
#10 Glazed and Confuzed, Denver, Colo.: Mojito
Courtesy: Glazed and Confuzed
These folks are turning out some truly creative doughnuts, many of which you’ll find at Denver’s leading coffee shops (look out for their take on a Samoa, with caramel, coconut, and a chocolate drizzle). They finally opened a brick-and-mortar shop last year and since then have claimed their rightful place as the best and most creative doughnut shop in town. Chef Josh Schwab makes each doughnut with local, organic, and seasonal ingredients whenever possible, and some of the wilder offerings include maple bacon (with two strips of bacon on top), root beer float, Nutter Butter fluff with chocolate-covered bananas, and blackberry pecan cobbler. But don’t leave without trying the mojito, a yeast doughnut sporting a glaze infused with rum, fresh lime, and fresh mint. It’s stunning.
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#9 Verna’s Donut Shop, Cambridge, Mass.: Chocolate Honey-Dip
Photo: wayne and wax/Flickr
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more delicious doughnut in the Boston area than the chocolate honey-dipped at Verna’s, a no-frills, cash-only doughnut and coffee shop that makes their doughnuts fresh every morning and has inspired a cult-like devotion among its fans. For more than 60 years, they’ve been turning out the simple and delicious honey-dipped doughnut, renamed the “Honey Tip” in honor of Tip O’Neill. While it’s delicious as is, the addition of chocolate glaze raises the level of deliciousness to the stratosphere.
#8 Blue Star Donuts, Portland, Ore.: Cointreau Crème Brûlée
Courtesy: Blue Star Doughnuts
This Portland doughnut shop currently has four locations in town, but don’t be surprised if more start popping up soon; this place is a certified juggernaut. The reason? Brioche. The doughnuts start with a brioche recipe from the south of France that takes 18 hours to get right, ingredients are local and super fresh, they’re fried in rice oil throughout the day, and the level of creativity is stunning. Varieties include blueberry bourbon basil, buttermilk old fashioned, and pistachio cream cheese, but don’t miss the Cointreau crème brûlée, which has a Cointreau-filled syringe on top that allows you to control the level of booziness. And if you can’t make it to Portland, they’ll be opening a Los Angeles location this summer.
#7 Danny’s Donuts, Vista, Calif.: Blueberry Cake
Courtesy: Danny’s Donuts
Danny’s Donuts has a fiercely devoted fan base, and with good reason: Since 1973, they’ve been turning out some of Southern California’s finest doughnuts. Their claim to fame, however, is the deceptively simple blueberry cake doughnut. Similar in flavor to the best blueberry muffin you’ll ever have, it’s fluffy, topped with a sticky, oozing glaze, and loaded with fresh blueberries. Get there early, though: Danny’s is only open until noon during the week and 1 p.m. on the weekends.
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#6 Stan’s Donuts, Los Angeles: Peanut Butter and Banana with Chocolate Chips
Photo: Manda Wong/Flickr
There’s a lot to love about Stan’s, which has been holding down its Westwood Village corner since 1965; owner Stan Berman still comes in early every morning to make the doughnuts by hand in dozens of varieties. His most famous creations are the ones with peanut butter (including a Reese’s peanut butter pocket), and his peanut butter and banana doughnut, topped with chocolate chips, will haunt your dreams. Thankfully, they ship nationwide; we advise taking them up on their offer.
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#5 Bouchon Bakery, Yountville, Calif.: Jelly Doughnut with Seasonal Preserves
Courtesy: Bouchon Bakery
Every Saturday and Sunday morning, a handful of doughnuts in several varieties are fried up at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro before it opens for lunch. They are served (very quickly) at his next-door bakery. At about $3 each, they’re not cheap, but the rich confections of brioche-like, buttery dough filled with fresh-made, seasonal preserves demonstrate creative ingenuity and an adherence to only fresh, seasonal ingredients. The end result is something the country’s most renowned chef can be proud to tack his name to.
#4 Loyless Donuts, Ashford, Ala.: Chocolate Glazed
Wake up early and get to Loyless in the morning, because when this place sells out of doughnuts, they close — and they always sell out before noon. This southern Alabama landmark is family-owned and no-frills, and the doughnuts are handmade every morning by the husband and wife duo of owners Eva and Garland Loyless. Loyless represents a dying breed; it’s Americana at its finest. Keep it simple and opt for a chocolate-glazed: it’ll be warm, soft, and comforting.
#3 Dough, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Lemon Poppy
This little shop, nestled into a cozy corner of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood (there’s also a recently opened second location near Madison Square Park), is quietly turning out some spectacular doughnuts. The owners of Dough stick to yeast as opposed to cake doughnuts, and it’s a recipe that they’ve perfected. The key is freshness — freshly fried doughnuts are near-constantly brought out of the kitchen. The offerings change consistently, but never cease to surprise. Passion fruit, hibiscus, Earl Grey, blood orange, chocolate glazed… you might just have to return a few times before your cravings for these doughnuts will be satisfied. But they most likely never will be. If you see the lemon poppy doughnut on offer, make sure you buy a couple: big, light, fluffy, and bursting with bright, lemony goodness, one bite of these will put a smile on your face 100 percent of the time.
#2 Round Rock Donuts, Round Rock, Texas: Plain Glazed
The unique orange-yellow doughnut that put Round Rock on the map gets its color from the high-quality fresh eggs that go into it. The recipes and ovens used to create these rings of perfection haven’t changed since the 1920s, and they sell for only 59 cents apiece. Forgo the “Texas Size” giant for the classic plain glazed. Simple and delicious.
#1 Doughnut Vault, Chicago: Plain Glazed
While Doughnut Vault is not an easy place to score your doughnuts (they’re only open until they sell out, which can take less than an hour), once you’ve made your precious purchase it’s nearly impossible not to leave the Doughnut Vault a very happy camper, in proud possession of the best doughnuts in America. The menu is gigantic, but narrow down your options to the cake doughnuts, which are surprisingly light and fresh. From there, your best bet is to keep it simple; a simple, sugary glaze will have you never looking at a cake doughnut the same way again.
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