Can Portland Hold Onto Its Doughnut Crown?
The first time I visited Portland was in 2008, and I still have an image of that city burned into my head: Doughnuts. Communal tables. Pok Pok. Potato Champion. Bacon on everything. Flannels and whiskey everywhere.
Absolute legends have included Voodoo Doughnuts on their essential Portland tours. “Arise, ye nonconformist doughnuts,” Anthony Bourdain said on his 2007 Pacific Northwest episode of No Reservations, in which he chowed on an Oreo-peanut butter doughnut, ashamedly admitted his love for the bacon maple bar, and listened to co-owner Cat Daddy Pogson rehash the legends of Voodoo’s Pepto Bismol and Nyquil doughnuts that were promptly shut down by the FDA. In Portlandia season two, a scavenger hunt leads Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen to Voodoo Doughnuts based on a maple bacon hint, and Armisen has to chow down several doughnuts to find the next clue.
I’m going to be honest: I’ve never tried a Voodoo Doughnut. First of all, the line is too long, people have warned me that they’re “for tourists,” and most importantly, the company fired unionized workers for striking during the 115+ degree heatwaves in June 2021. The second-most famous, Blue Star, has never really appealed to me; I find their doughnuts too sweet and laden with grandma-y flavors like basil and bergamot.
I am, however, a stan for Portland’s more locally-loved, one-off donut shops. Those fluffy, hot mini doughnuts from Pip’s can do no wrong, especially the raw honey-sea salt and the seasonal banana custard ones, and they’re real mensches for giving everyone a free birthday dozen. Doe Donut has an always-fun selection of rotating flavors—key lime or burnt pineapple, anyone? And my heart truly lies with old-school donuts, especially those from Annie’s Donuts on Sandy Boulevard (best maple bar ever) and Joe’s Donuts in Sandy (applesauce doughnut FTW). I haven’t made it to a Heyday pop-up yet for mochi doughnuts, but based on trusted reports, I’m sure they’ll be great.
But after one recent experience, I don’t think Portland as a whole is on the cutting edge of donut innovation anymore. A couple weeks ago, I got into the Miami airport late at night for my friend’s wedding and promptly crashed on her air mattress. When I woke up, there was a box of doughnuts from The Salty Donut awaiting me on the kitchen table. “Fancy doughnuts?” I thought. “I'm a proud Portlander; been there, done that.”
I opened the box, and to my delight, there was a guava-cream cheese doughnut with puff pastry strudel on top, inspired by the Cuban guava-cheese pastelitos that are ubiquitous around Miami. The tangy guava filling, roughly the consistency of that stuff floating in a lava lamp, oozed out gratuitously from the fluffy brioche dough, thinly glazed with tangy, glossy cream cheese icing. Not quite as good as an OG pastelito, but still a damn good doughnut. Other highlights included an affogato doughnut with espresso glaze, coffee-chocolate crumbles, and coffee whipped cream; a cinnamon-brown butter twist; and a vegan sweet potato and toasted marshmallow number. Yes, there was a maple bacon doughnut, too. No, I did not eat it. Lack of creativity = not worth the calories.
So imagine my surprise when I saw a post on my Instagram feed announcing a limited-run collab between the Salty Donut and Salt & Straw. Okay, both businesses clearly love sodium, but otherwise, why is a Portland ice cream company conspiring with a Miami doughnut shop rather than a Portland one? What does that say about the Rose City’s doughnut game? What’s more, when I sent an inquiry to Salt & Straw’s public relations team to learn more about the collab, I was told that the limited-edition flavors would be pulled from the site tomorrow because they were nearly sold out.
Clearly, we have work to do if we’re going to hold onto our crown as a doughnut destination. Or am I just missing out on the most innovative doughnuts? Portland, if you know of other doughnuts I should be trying, let me know. Or maybe it’s time for a Pip’s collab, or a take on Heyday donuts with Portland Ca Phe coffee ice cream, or an Annie’s maple bar flavor. Salt & Straw, consider this my official flavor suggestion.