Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Great Saint Louis Donut Hunt: Breakfast of Champions

Donuts or Diabetic Shock?

I woke up to a fine gray misty rain, which soon turned into a steady, driving downpour.   With great difficulty I emerged from the warm cocoon of my bed and stumbled downstairs through the frigid house to put on a pot of coffee, wishing that the radiators were on.  It should have felt like Christmas morning - I had been looking forward to my great donut tasting for a long time and I knew that I would have to get over this morning hump and look past the rain.  Last week I had arranged for an informal tasting panel of Washington University medical students to test the strengths and weaknesses of the donuts I planned on bringing in.    With my route established (see map of the Great Donut Triangle below) and map in hand, I set forth with a mug of coffee and a growling stomach at about 9:15am.  Note that in donut time, this is the equivalent of waking up at noon.  I figured since I was unable to have a traveling tasting panel to experience the luxury of hot donuts, that a few hours would not make a big difference.

Before I write further, I want to thank all of the lovely people who helped me, most of whom were the owners of the establishments I visited.  These bakers work hard, love what they do, and are unanimously enthusiastic about the products they create each day.  I also want to thank all of the owners who refused to take any pay for their donuts, making this venture less costly and allowing us to taste a wide variety of specialties.

Our first stop: Lamar's Donuts on Brentwood Blvd.   Lamar's, headquartered in Nebraska, was the only donut chain we tried.  Set up like a coffee shop/ café I sauntered to the counter and was helped promptly; the display was attractive and the donuts looked fresh.  The baking is done offsite (on Olive Blvd.) and thus, unfortunately, the store did not smell incredible as I had hoped.  Instead it smelled of coffee (and so there were no complaints).   The employee behind the counter was happy to serve me and proudly claimed that Lamar's donuts were "bigger and better" than other places.

The display case at Lamar's.

The second stop was the Donut Drive-In on Chippewa. The employees at the Drive-In were friendly and the store, which was claustrophobically packed with to-go boxes and baking supplies, smelled great. "Tender loving care" makes the best donut, claim the women behind the counter who let me take a quick snapshot before I made out with  glazed and buttermilk donuts, as well as an apple fritter.

Pay no attention to the women behind the counter.

The house that donuts built.

As I got back into the car, the skies opened up.  While I was happy to be dry and warm, I was out of coffee, starved, and feeling cranky.   The car smelled good but I didn't dare break into any of my loot.  After all, I had only made it to two of eight planned stops and had 6 donuts to show for it.  I wasn't going to break down and sneak a taste and I certainly wasn't going to eat the unappealing banana, which I had brought with me, thinking that I should eat some fruit to counteract all the lard and sugar I was going to consume in the forthcoming hours.  I continued south to my next stop, the St. Louis Hills Donut Shop.  Momentarily lost and turned around, I was happy to spot the green shack of deliciousness.  

At this point, I have to admit, it was already late for donuts and this establishment was set to close in 2 hours and had been open since 5am.  The baking certainly had been done and the owners were probably ready to head home and rest up before returning later in the night.  The owner, who was very nice, testified to the hard work that it takes to making a good donut.  It was a homey place and I made out with a cheese flip, a glazed donut and a buttermilk donut.

Big Green.

I continued my trek to the southern-most point on my itinerary, the Donut Stop, which was a good distance from downtown, on the outskirts of Jefferson Barracks.  The store was big, smelled great and the owners were still hard at work keeping the display cases fully stocked.   Serving the community's donut needs for the past 55 years, the present owners believed that attention to detail and strong relationships with their clientele proved to be the key to their long-standing success.  I left with a box stuffed with donuts of every variety.  Luckily there were two plain glazed and I wolfed one down in the car.  Not bad...

Donut lighthouse on a gray day.

The Donut Stop family.

I began to head north along Broadway, which was a great drive taking me past an interesting stretch of storefronts, all of which looked like they could have enormous potential in the urban renewal of my dreams.   Sadly, Broadway runs along a terrible strip of the Mississippi river, replete with heavy industry and a sewage treatment facility.  Pharaoh's Donuts was my next intended stop but I had difficulty finding the store.   Time was tight and I was hurrying to meet my 1pm deadline. 

Soulard Market's stall #115 was next on the list, featuring a unique local donut experience; unfortunately, I discovered that Mini Donut, LLC. was closed as they only operate on the weekends. They serve, if I recall correctly, only cake donuts, which come either powdered or plain and are made fresh from a rickety donut-making contraption.  I didn't have time to linger, or get a sausage in the market, so I cut across 7th street and Broadway to John Donut.

Homey and warm.

Disappointed that he was out of the plain glazed donuts, John, the owner, loaded me up with a nice variety of the donuts he had left.  The 26 year old storefront served breakfast and snacks to a wide range of loyal clientele.  The donuts are made nightly from high quality ingredients and stuffed with home made custards and jellies.  John believes that the store's consistency is what sets them apart from other establishments.

Not much was left after a successful morning.

While I wanted to linger over a cup of coffee and some breakfast, I had to move on to my final stop, World's Fair Donuts.

Meet me in St. Louie, Louie...

World's Fair on, open for 32 years, a wonderful throwback to a bygone era.  The woman working the counter had a terrific bee-hive and the bakery somehow reminded me of the Eat-Rite Diner on Chouteau.  Two bakers prepared fillings and plain doughnuts behind the counter and were friendly when I asked to take some photographs.  Old timers sipped coffee and traded stories and, presumably, had just polished off breakfast.  Certainly things were all-right at this shop and there was a comfortable vibe to it.  Maybe it was because it felt like both the establishment and the employees had been frozen in time, a part of south St. Louis that resisted, even scorned change.  When I offered to give this website's address the woman serving me told me that she didn't own a computer and that she laughed that she relied on snail mail.   This was not so surprising but definitely added World Fair's charm.  Fruit top donuts, apple fritters, and plain glazed are the specialties here and I was sent off with a nice variety.

Working hard or hardly working?

Loaded with donuts I drove back north to Barnes Hospital to meet my panel, which was looking forward to a little bit of a pick-me up.  The below photograph shows our loot with third-year student Laura Billadello eagerly cutting into a cake donut before the tasting.  I was so hungry at this point and I was in absolute diabetic shock after the tasting that I neglected to take additional photographs of the tasting and the mass of white-coats that flocked to the free food like moths to light.

Did somebody say free?

So the tasting looks less extravagant than it really was.  It was unfortunately difficult to really spread out without a long table and since I don't have something like a conference room readily available, we had to make do.  In the end we had 6 donut stores representing.  We luckily made a few tasting categories in order to objectively look at which donuts were worthwhile.  The first category was the plain glazed.  The plain glazed donut is the unanimous workhorse of the donut world.  Judge a person not by the color of his donut shop, but by the quality of his/her glazed.  Sadly, John Donut was disqualified from the running in this first category since they had sold out of their plain glazed.  Theoretically this would make them the automatic winner since they were good enough to completely sell out, but this would not be fair to our other contenders.  We looked at flavor (obviously), mouthfeel, and appearance as the main criteria for judgment.

The rankings were objective decisions and the panel was generally unanimous with their conclusions.  In the category of plain glazed donuts the first place went to the Donut Stop.  These donuts were exceptional, slightly crisp but soft and light on the inside.  They had a slight vanilla flavor to them and were exceptionally good.  They were not overly greasy either - I could have eaten a ton of these things.  Donut Drive-In clinched second place but their flavor just could not match those of the Donut Stop.  St. Louis Hills had a very nice donut - slightly smaller than the others and was a solidly delicious pastry.  It unfortunately lacked the pizzaz that the other two had but nonetheless was very good.  World's Fair, unfortunately did not fair so well.  The donut was super-saturated with grease (lard, to be exact) to the extent that it ruined its flavor.  The texture was good but maybe they should replace their frying medium.  Finally Lamar's proved that bigger is not necessarily better.  The donut was light but had a bread-like quality to it.  The flavor was not there and it could not hold its own.

The next category consisted of Apple Fritters.  We had apple fritters from 3 shops.  John Donut's was laden with fresh-tasting fruit and was absolutely phenomenal.  The balance of fruit, cinnamon, icing, and dough was perfect and was a unanimous favorite in the tasting.  Donut Drive-In's apple fritter was similar but did not taste as fresh.  I don't know if they use canned or fresh filling but clearly the secret is in the fruit.  Finally World's Fair could not hold up against the other two.  The fritter was completely coated with icing which made the pastry overly-cloying.  

Since we had a large variety of donuts and focused so much on the plain glazed, we were unable to compare donuts in all the categories.  John Donut and Donut Stop both had great custards and jellies as well as cake donuts.  John Donut received enormous style points as their selection looked particularly refined - their cake donut was also absolutely terrific.

All in all we had a very successful tasting with eight medical students stuffing their faces.

Looking back on the tasting and subsequent need for dialysis, I couldn't help but feel that more could have been done.  St. Louis is a city with many hidden gems and many locally owned stores worth exploring.  Obviously I would have liked to have been able to taste all of the listed stores but a huge time and effort went into even this small tasting.  I will continue tasting new places and will hopefully add a few more places as I continue to explore.

These hard working families have kept donut giants like Duncan Donuts and Krispee Kreme at bay, proving that in a fiercely competitive market, the best donuts are the ones that receive the most attention and care; baking requires a certain amount of love as well as respect for your product.  Hopefully, with the economy shifting towards a serious recession we will see the re-emergence of the donut as people turn to comfort foods in these times of uncertainty.

No matter what happens, there's something comforting knowing that you can easily find a good donut and a cup of coffee. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wish I could have seen a picture of Laura Billadello somewhere in this article. Did she write the article? Laura's grandfather (Joe B.) and my late husband Frank were brothers. Joe and Peg send me an e-mail now and then - always mentioning Laura. So proud.
Nina Billadello