Sweet Stuff

The Quest for the Quintessential Doughnut

Forget frou-frou—we scoured the city in search of the simple circles, logs, and mounds of sugar-injected pastry that make us feel like a kid again.

By Anna Sachse March 9, 2011


From buttermilk to maple bars, cakes to cream-filled, and fritters to old-fashioneds, we wanted to know who is doing—and who is not doing—classic “donuts” right. Sure, there are plenty of restaurants doing delightful gourmet donut holes with salted caramel sauce or crème anglaise, but we wanted the nostalgic versions that Homer Price would approve of.

So, without further adieu, here’s our take on 10 local hotspots, in decreasing order of sugar-injected supremacy.

Would you agree?

1) Tonalli’s Donuts & Cream 2805 NE Alberta St

Upon moving to the Alberta Arts district, I tried Tonalli’s and thought “These are the best damn donuts in the world.” Upon trying a ton of other places, I feel the same way—as do the families and drunks that belly up to the counter of this modest shop, year-round. Not too dense, not too fluffy, not too greasy, and never tasting of old fryer oil, these dunkers manage a delicate touch without losing the hearty donut appeal that you can really bite into. A cinnamon & sugar old-fashioned is coated in a wonderful, crunchy, spicy-sweet crust that melts in your mouth once your teeth hit the soft inside, but you must try the buttermilk bar. The outside is crispy, the glaze is in perfect balance, and the inside, with its crave-worthy sour zing, is moist and sponge-y, like freshly baked bread. Pro tip: Go early in the morning or after 9:30pm for fresh, hot donuts of all kinds. ($.75-$1.35)

2) Coco Donut 709 SW 17th Ave

They are housed in a hard-to-find, exceedingly hip pink-brown-and-gray space just below PG&E Park, they serve Stumptown, and their selections are limited. But, man o’ man, do they know how to do good by classic donuts. Skip their signature pink-frosted chocolate cake donut (it’s both crisp and moist but kind of boring) in favor of the out-of-sight maple bar. Soft and succulent, you can see the not-sweet-at-all bready base snap back after you take a bite, and the perfect amount of frosting tastes like real maple. The apple fritter is also a winner—crunchy and caramel-y on the outside, with tender bits of apple, the pastry is reminiscent of an exquisite croissant. ($.90-$1.25)

3) Sesame Donuts 6990 Beaverton-Hillsdale Hwy

Now here’s a real reason to brave the death-defying four-way intersection where the 10 meets the 210 in Raleigh Hills. The unbelievably friendly and talkative Lebanese family that owns it, works the counter, and likes to listen to opera may be reason enough, but the donuts are mighty fine too. There are a billion options, but real stand-outs include the crackly, caramel-y, and heavy-on-the-cinnamon apple fritter, the glazed raised ring with the perfect combo of softness and chew, and the flavorful sweet-and-spice pumpkin cake donut served year-round. The savory coating on the sesame cake donut is strange at first bite, but quickly blends into a tasty and unique treat. ($.95-$1.75)

4) Staccato Gelato 232 NE 28th Ave

Available Friday through Sunday only, this chic ice cream shop’s dunkers conjure images of drinking coffee and reading the paper at the corner diner before heading off to your construction job. All the cake donuts boast a sink-your-teeth-into crust yielding to a soft, barely-there sweetness and the essence of truly quality ingredients. On my recent foray, the popular cardamom cake donut could have used a bit more spice, but was delicious nonetheless, and the just plain fun Fairy Princess (pink inside, pink frosting, rainbow sprinkles) seemed to have a lovely, subtle strawberry flavor after multiple munches. Then there’s the French cruller—airy, egg-y, and exceedingly moist, it was pure mouth magic. Get there early for the freshest options, or pair an older donut with a scoop of gelato. ($1.25-$1.50)

5) Donuts Plus 13500 NW Cornell Rd

Located in a less than glamorous strip mall in what feels like the middle of nowhere (although clearly memorable to stoner high school students), this classic donut shop is worth the trip. The blueberry old-fashioned is a real delight, with a crunchy, ripple-y exterior, moist interior, and real blueberry flavor. The maple bar is a poofy pillow that still provides chew, while the custard in a filled donut tastes like real vanilla pudding and is surrounded by a thin powdered sugar-dusted cloud of taut pastry. The friendly owner works the counter and slipped me two free donuts and a handful of holes—I felt like family on my first visit! ($.90-$1.09)

6) Annie’s Donut Shop 3449 NE 72nd Ave

People in the Yelp-o-sphere often argue that Annie’s is the best in town. In my experience, this old-school joint out east is good, but not great. A glazed applesauce cake donut, for example, had amazing apple and spice flavor, but no crispness on the outside and the glaze made it too sweet. Similarly, a buttermilk bar hit the right tangy notes, but was more of a thick, biscuit-y hunk than a soft, crumbly cake. However, the popular bouncy-soft, cinnamon-infused Butterfly is a chocolate and peanut butter-topped treat that melts in your mouth. ($.69-$.99)

7) VooDoo Doughnut 22 SW Third Ave

Wanna wait in line for an hour in a dirty hole with tweakers and tourists, just so a surly punk rocker will hand you a mess of Technicolor hockey pucks that are all style over substance? VD (and VD Too) is for you. Folks flock here for the creativity (buns bearing breakfast cereal or meat) and titillation (the popular Old Dirty Bastard or enormous and pricey Cock and Balls), and, I’d argue, other than the pleasing salty-sweet explosion of the bacon-maple bar, not because the actual donuts taste good. Dense and bland, with zero crunch, the buttermilk bar is like a log of flat cake batter covered in congealed sugar water. Even the more elaborate Old Dirty Bastard (crumbled Oreos embedded in peanut butter and chocolate frosting) may have a somewhat pleasing flavor, but it’s psychotically sweet and sticks to the roof of your mouth, threatening to block your airways. ($.95-$5.25)

8) Krispy Kreme 16415 NW Cornell Rd

There’s something transcendent about a KK glazed original hot off the conveyor belt—light as air, it melts in your mouth with a delicate sweetness and lack of grease that doesn’t immediately make you feel bloated and disgusting. But when they’re not seconds fresh, these Stepford Wife pastries (they’re all photo-ready and exactly the same!) lose a bit of their appeal. Truly awesome donuts have a grittiness, an imperfection in look and texture that attests to their made-from-scratch-by-hand nature. After sitting, the too-uniform KK original ring turns cloying and chemically, as does a sour cream old-fashioned. But I do give points to the raspberry jelly-filled for a goo that actually tastes like real fruit. ($.99-$1.29)

9) Delicious Donuts 12 SE Grand Ave

I wasn’t able to try the blueberry cake donut that Kelly Clarke raved about in our Dining 2010: Picks and Pans, and the reviews I found online were all glowing—which is the only reason why DD is one rung above the bottom. I highly recommend visiting this dark, dreary cave by sunrise because the donuts—all classics—are baked fresh in the morning, run out quickly, and aren’t fine wine. My 11am maple bar was dry and barely maple-y, and the sweetened coconut on my almost stale maple cake donut made the whole thing too sugary. But high marks for clean-tasting ingredients and fryer oil. ($.95-$1.45)

10) Heavenly Donuts 1915 N Lombard St

The NoPo outpost of this Northwest chain used to be a Winchell’s, which seems fitting—it serves up generic fare in a tidy but rough-and-tumble joint that’s at a least a tad more authentic than Safeway. Sure, the gelatinous custard in a chocolate-topped filled donut tastes like Jell-O pudding powder, but the pastry is moist and puffy, with a bit of chew when you bite down, and the components are all in balance. That said, the buttermilk bar was like a day-old biscuit, sogged by too much glaze dumped on top, and chocolate-frosted devil’s food donut was downright terrible—no crispness, too dense, and the flavor of cheap cocoa powder. ($.89-$1.39)

Check out our search for the quintessential cookie here.

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