Tuesday, February 12, 2013

State of the Donuts Address

What’s in a name? Firecakes utilizes an heirloom recipe from the founder’s great-grandfather, who was a baker for Wisconsin logging camps. Back then, doughnuts were made over an open fire. They even have gramps’ now antique doughnut cutter.

Yo Obama, I’ma let you finish, but…

Since Dirty Betty’s / Cookie Bar has closed and the planned new location is yet to be announced, I wanted to take an honest look at the state of donuts in Chicago and the craze of small-batch doughnut shops that are creeping up downtown and beyond. Here they are, arranged in descending order of my affections.

Firecakes. Having just opened this month, and in walking distance from my job, I am already convinced we have a new champion. Everything I’ve had has been a stand-out. The Chocolate Hazelnut, which is a longjohn with Nutella cream filling. The Valrhona Chocolate Glazed, which carries the mantel once held by Dirty Betty’s of the most fulfilling chocolate glaze. The Honey Glazed, which is a solid reminder that the true test is mastering the basics. The Coconut Cream, which is a cake donut with a totally unexpected citrusy twist and a dollop of cream in the middle. Firecakes, may I present you the crown?

“We Can Donut.” Glazed and Infused, Wicker Park.
Glazed and Infused. This young company has already opened five locations! Switching out most of their menu to offer seasonal selections, this shop has no shortage of creativity. In the fall, they had Carrot Cake and German Chocolate Cake. This winter, they have Blueberry-Lemon. While these, as well as most of their offerings are cake doughnuts, they have an ever-changing seasonal glazed doughnut, my favorite of which has been Blueberry. Amongst their changing menu they have a few staples, which includes Crème Brûlée, a custard-filled doughnut with a hard burnt sugar topping. If any Chicago doughnut beats what I’ve had at Firecakes, it is this.

Do-Rite Doughnuts. Specializing in cake doughnuts, this place serves up flavor combinations one doesn’t normally find with donuts. Strawberry-Rhubarb and Peanut Butter Banana, for example. One might assume these très chic donuts would be dainty three-biters, but these are meaty monsters that would make less gluttonous more rational people stop after just one. My favorites are the aromatic Pistachio-Meyer Lemon and the creamy Coconut Custard.

Do-Rite's Pistachio-Meyer Lemon
Beaver’s Coffee & Donuts. This successful food truck business has added a fixed location in the French Market. From 7-6, they serve fresh and warm mini-yeast donuts with the topping(s) of your choice. Featuring sprinkles, marshmallow sauce and strawberry sauce, their gourmet toppings resemble what you might find at an ice cream sundae bar, so it takes a bit of bargaining to accept these donuts as a breakfast food item. They do not keep well, but that shouldn't be a problem for most people with a mouth and stomach.

Doughnut Vault. When this posh, elevator shaft-sized space opened, I bought the hype. I stood in hour-long lines for a five-item menu, knowing they tended to run out of things quickly. My first visit wasn’t anything notable, so I masochistically returned hoping the other flavors would wow me. Instead my resentment grew. (Their “Chestnut” tastes like a maple doughnut. And sprinkles on a $3 doughnut?) If you enjoy standing in fried bread lines, their best offering is the Gingerbread Stack, three small spiced cake doughnuts with cinnamon sugar. Glancing at their website, they now offer a rotating special doughnut on weekdays. Thanks, but I'll just go down the street to Firecakes.


Chicago, of course, is not limited to these newer, small batch doughnut shops. Chicago's southside has a few local institutions that have been making traditional doughnuts for years. Because I am a public transit-dependent northsider who gets far too hungry to wait, I have only tried one of them: Dat Donut. Despite its appearance on Bon Appetit’s Top 10 Places for Donuts list, I found it pretty average. But let’s be honest: an average doughnut is better than a Gold-medal winning salad…unless that salad is fried. Other southside doughnut joints include Old Fashioned Donuts and Huck Finn Restaurants.