It was 2003 and I drove across the country to Washington, D.C. to begin my college career. As we—my grandmother, younger sister, mother, and I—traversed through the vast land of the United States, we came across a variety of local eateries. Along that journey, I took note of something that was very different from Los Angeles.
Growing up as a kid in Southern California meant being familiar with the local doughnut shop. No matter what neighborhood you lived in, there was always one: It rested on the corner, a member of the community filled to the hilt most mornings with elders sipping coffee and enjoying their sugary breakfast delights. They sat scratching their lottery tickets hoping to hit the jackpot, and in we walked, kids on the way to school stopping in for our own meal on the go. After school, it was much of the same, save for the scoops of ice cream in styrofoam cups we asked for in lieu of doughnut holes.
What I noticed was that in neighborhoods spanning from Santa Monica to South Central down to Whittier and Cerritos where I spent much of my childhood, these same doughnut shops existed. What I’ve longed to know for years is, why? How did this doughnut culture begin and how has one sugary treat become such a revolution in food?
In the aught of the 80s, Ted Ngoy—whose family fled Cambodia during the terror of the Khmer Rouge—landed in Los Angeles. Like many immigrants, Ngoy needed a way to support his family in this new land. Noticing how busy the doughnut shop near his job at the gas station was, he realized the donut was the way to make it happen. After attending Winchell’s management program, he went on to purchase his own shop, Christy’s Donuts in La Habra; he would then open 20 stores within a span of five years.
Through his store, several other Cambodian immigrants were able to follow his entrepreneurial footsteps and thus the storefront doughnut culture in Los Angeles was born. This is how the business of fried dough has become such a staple in every community. Donut King—a small freestanding building on Rosecrans Avenue in Norwalk, CA—is the product of this kismet. The family running the shop has been in business for more than 20 years and still manages to sell out daily. They sell a dozen donut holes for a dollar and probably the best maple bar I’ve ever had. John and Sophie have stayed around because their doughnuts are just plain good.
While some towns and cities call Dunkin and Krispy Kreme their local shop, Californias long for businesses such as Randy’s Donuts, California Donuts, Knead, and plenty more. It has been amazing to watch doughnuts transform from being the stereotypical greasy fare of the police officer to a coveted artisanal offering nationwide.
Take Dough, for instance, a bakery that opened in 2014 in Brooklyn, New York. Dough has been serving up transparency and taste. With their open kitchens operating in Flatiron, Manhattan, and on Park Avenue, they’ve been dedicated to offering doughnuts in gourmet flavors. The first bite I took into the cafe au lait, I closed my eyes. As one who doesn’t drink coffee, but enjoys the flavor of a strongly brewed cup, it punched me in the gut with flavor—so much so that I ordered two more and took them to go on my bus ride back to D.C. Yet, even as enjoyable as they were there is still something about a corner shop's old-fashioned that makes my mouth water.
We’ve seen doughnuts become a vehicle for other treats as well. A California newbie, Afters, brought their flamboyant flavors to life by stuffing them in between two doughnuts for an ice cream sandwich that sings. With one shop that started in Orange County and now has grown to 27 locations in five years, whether it’s the doughnuts or the ice cream, who knows, but it is gluttonously good. Afters is one example of how doughnuts can be the vehicle to millions, while Astros, a doughnut and fried chicken outpost, is an example of how it may not always work. Started in the nation’s capital, Astros tried to make the jump out west with two locations in downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica. Sadly, they shuttered their L.A. stores with no forewarning except for an announcement on Instagram.
What is true for doughnuts far and wide is that they are a vehicle for many flavors and variations. Like fonuts, who opened in 2011 as one of the only gluten-free vegan donut options in Los Angeles. Founder Nancy and her husband Thom, are now continuing to make waves with their enlightened donut and their 100 percent gluten-free bakery. Even if you think doughnuts aren’t for you, they continue to prove there truly is something for everyone.
Doughnuts have more bite in the breakfast dessert game than I thought. Like a chameleon, they have adapted to the times, always finding their way into someone’s hands. For years, I didn’t understand the love of doughnuts; even as the one making midnight runs to Krispy Kreme often for my own mom, it never made sense to me. What was the big deal? Yet, now years later most Sunday mornings, I ask my three girls—“Anybody want a doughnut?”—and off we go to that small cash-only place where the doughnuts are fresh, sweet, and delicious. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.