Portland doesn't need more point-of-view doughnuts. Auteur fried dough is everywhere, from Pip's made-to-order, community-minded minis to Matta's pandan-glazed beauties. We just want them. Especially now. Dear god, especially now.
So, of course, we had to taste—and rank—everything at Fills, which opens for take-away at 8 a.m. on Friday, October 16 at 1237 SW Washington St. Quick conclusion: Portland's charming donutland has a new destination. (Note: only three people inside at a time; no mask, no entry).
Fills is obsessed with the Berliner school of fried dough, based on the German pastry that resembles a jelly doughnut. Think plump, yeast-raised, sweet buns hiding an ooze of jam or custard, the swollen tops glazed or sugared; no holes allowed. That's the classic definition and the jumping off point for Fills.
Ideas are forged in one of the city's most interesting collaborations. The partnership includes baker Katherine Benvenuti, with her heaven-forbid-an-ingredient-comes-from-a-jar ethos and former Noble Rot chef Leather Storrs, the funny, freewheeling co-host of Cooked with Cannabis. Benvenuti, it should be noted, is currently crushing it at her new Bakery at Bar King.
The selection is small to start. Even when playful, Fills donuts taste refined, each handcrafted and hand formed and never too sweet. All share the same dough, which is pillowy enough to sleep on and made from a natural levain starter. Only the fillings change.
“It's important to do fun things,” says Storrs. “But deliciousness is more important. We don't want to do a million different things. No cereal toppings for us. We like being seasonal; we like an evolving menu.”
Still, I'm excited about Fills’ savory experiments. Like, hello, pimento Berliner. This might be a world's first. Storrs is already toying with other ideas, including a chicken liver mousse center, mixed with apple mostarda and fried onions. Bring it on! Also in the works: breakfast eggs sandos made with cut-open Berliners.
On Wednesday, soft-opening day, I ripped through Fills’ first options, aided by two members of my quarantine house pod, Julien and Hannah. Here's how they stacked up.
#1 Maple Bacon and Butterscotch
We were ready to rage-eat this Berliner and stick it with voodoo pins. Couldn't the pandemic kill off the maple bacon thing? But wait … this is fantastic. We lunged at a second bite with such fury, I feared a knee injury. A powershot of deep, rich, smoky butterscotch custard greets you. In short: this is true butterscotch, not butterscotch flavor—good butter, pan-browned in homemade caramel, then deglazed with single-malt scotch. Rising on top: a thin wash of maple syrup, cream, and white chocolate. Turns out, bacon is not an obscenity here, but a garnish, a final exclamation point, an exhilarating little hammer of porkiness, all sweet, smoke, salt, and chew. Call it the smoking jacket of donuts. We wanted to swirl it.
#2 Chocolate Hazelnut
Not the usual Nutella battering ram gut-bomb (which we love, make no mistake). Fills transforms its own hazelnut praline paste into a silky, earthy nut custard, offset by a good bitter chocolate glaze embedded with roasted nuts. It's an elegant ode to Portland, what Julien calls “our lumbersexual donut.”
#3 Pimento Cheese
A savory, sesame-coated Berliner experiment and kind of a genius bagel alternative—complete with chunky whipped pimento and cream cheese inside, plus a faint hot honey note. What would take this to the next level: really toasting those seeds to get a force-field of crunch for extra flavor and textural contrast. But we're in.
#4 White Chocolate Passion Fruit
This is a tweak away from being an object of desire. The passionfruit custard just pops, all tang and bright bite. And the blizzard of housemade Tajín sugar on top adds another textural dimension—you literally hear the crunch on first bite. Tajín seasoning is prized for its mix of dried chiles and lime, but its magic didn't come through. Passionfruit and hot chiles are a killer combo. Add a heat ray and this Berliner is gold.
#5 Boston Creme Pie
This will probably be the house hit. Everyone loves an eclair-like, chocolate-glazed, custard-filled doughnut—just ask the Dunkin' people or Massachusetts, where it lives as the state donut. “It's a necessary evil,” admits Storrs. We liked the added salt spike on top (everything within Portland's city limits, by law, must have a sprinkle of local Jacobsen Salt). Otherwise, this is a solid, well-balanced take, nothing more, nothing less.
#6 Cinnamon Apple
My favorite Berliner at Fills' summer pop-up rippled with fresh-made roasted apricot jam, like tasting an orchard inside a tender bun. Sadly, no jam-filled options are on the menu right now. Benvenuti's plan for fall grape jam died with the recent wildfires. So, for now, the cinnamon-forward house apple butter is standing in. It tasted like fall. It was fine. It was forgettable, with little help from the tame buttermilk glaze. Benvenuti takes it like a champ when I share our honest thoughts. “Oh, I agree!” she says. “Just wait until better apples come in the next weeks. Will make all the difference.” We believe. If this the worst it gets, Fills will do just fine.
1237 SW Washington St.
Wed-Sun, 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
Take-out only; masks required