Come October, I wish only to bundle myself in wool and wallow in the presence of roasted birds with prodigious amounts of gravy, hot mulled cider, and, of course, doughnuts.
Texans don't understand it, but there's a particular emotional connection between doughnuts and Halloween. Up North, autumn in general and Halloween in particular is a time for all of the Normal Rockwellian things there are to love about stuffy New England. Drinking fresh-pressed cider and eating doughnuts at an orchard, picking dirt-smeared pumpkins out of a patch, bobbing for crisp apples in cold water near old red barns. This part of my memory is colored by falling leaves, it smells like horse pastures, and it tastes like doughnuts. Old-fashioned, cinnamon sugar, Boston cream, powdered jelly, apple cider, French cruller -- everyone has a favorite.
To my continuing dismay, doughnuts are simply not as large a part of the Texas food ritual (but I guess fall isn't really, either). As altruistic (i.e., guilt-free) research on the culture of doughnuts, I tasted the wares of some local shops. The study yielded good and bad news. I'll share the good news first: Central Texans have year-round access to some startlingly good doughnuts, the best from the local businesses owned by individuals. The bad news is two-fold: Throughout the local doughnut shops you find a profound amount of non-dairy creamer, but no actual cream; this is tempered by the fact that you can buy milk for the requisite coffee if you choose to do so. The other bad news is that folks at the Lone Star Bakery and at Mrs. Johnson's aren't planning to taint their customers with the orange paint that I crave in honor of Halloween. Someone I spoke to at Ken's said he may do it on a whim, but for my particular purposes, chances are good that Halloween morning will find me at the Dunkin' Donuts on Route 183 or Ben White.
But for anything other than orange frosting, I will patronize these fine local donuterias.
Lone Star Bakery
106 W. Liberty
Round Rock, 255-3629
Owners Dale and Jan Cohrs tell tales of a storybook robbery that happened at the Lone Star 15 years ago. It seems that in the middle of the night, someone broke into their business but didn't actually help themselves to anything other than their famous doughnuts and cookies. The Cohrs probably weren't that surprised. At their previous doughnut shop in Tulsa, a man pulled a gun on the cashier while he was waiting for change from his dozen. After she emptied the till for him, he left the store but forgot the doughnuts on the counter. Needless to say he came back for them a few minutes later.
It's no wonder that people go to such lengths for these rings of dough with their signature yellow glow. Recently written up in chic Saveur Magazine as one of the best doughnut shops in the country, this old-fashioned bakery has been selling light, fluffy, famously yellow-tinted doughnuts for over 70 years. The secret to the color used to be the naturally bright yolk from farm eggs, but these days the Cohrs enhance the yolk color to set theirs apart from the rest, and because their loyal customers -- who buy over 500 dozen per day, starting at four in the morning -- expect it. It's doughnut innovation.
Notable Doughnut: Texas-Sized ($3.50). This doughnut is to Texas what Munchkins are to Delaware and Rhode Island. Imagine coming away from the Lone Star Bakery with one enormous, yellow-tinted, chocolate-covered donut to feed the whole family. Plus, they can make cakes shaped like armadillos. Does life get any better?
Ken's Doughnuts & Pastries
2820 Guadalupe, 320-8484
Daily, 24 hours
Students and professors are, by design, people who need coffee most, and therefore people who need doughnuts most. Ken's Doughnuts, open for 11 years in the same location just north of the University of Texas, is there to serve them.
Unfortunately, Ken's also looks like it's been sitting there for 11 years, and by extension, it had me wondering about the quality of its product. But the kitchen is open for all to see, and it turns out that the doughnuts are of extraordinary quality. You may be wondering: Can I give a doughnut a bad grade? It appears not.
Most of the doughnuts I tried at Ken's I genuinely loved. The crisp sour cream cake doughnut, the yeast doughnut covered with chocolate then coconut, and the Boston cream (referred to in the South as an eclair doughnut) were all splendid. I do miss the Northeastern convention of covering yeast doughnuts injected with jelly with powdered sugar. All the jelly doughnuts I run across here seem to be glazed -- but it turns out that I have no real objection to that anyway.
Notable Doughnut: Glazed Chocolate Cake ($0.49). Most doughnuts of this variety have a glorious texture but an intense, lingering, almost licorice-like characteristic. Ken's has the perfect chocolate cake doughnut. It's so good that it's almost like eating actual moist, rich chocolate cake, only fried then glazed. Dare to dream!
Mrs. Johnson's Bakery
4909 Airport, 452-4750
Daily, 24 hours
As I was forking over my $2.87 at Mrs. Johnson's, a well-worn building that, judging from the roar and the string of sightings of the underbelly of a DC-10, can be no more than 10 yards from the landing strip of Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, the ultimate selling point of doughnuts finally hit me: economy. Where else on Earth can you get five breakfast confections, a coffee, and a carton of milk for less than $4? I recalled deciding on another occasion (also in October) to surprise officemates with doughnuts one day, and assessing the value of my co-workers' happiness at a figure slightly short of $10. When I pulled up to the Mrs. Johnson's drive-through and announced that I wanted $8 worth of assorted, they passed approximately three million doughnuts through their window into mine.
Mrs. Johnson's Bakery is run by organized professionals who have taken a cue from their airport neighbors; they notify their customers exactly when the hot fresh doughnuts will arrive, and they are famous for passing these out at six in the morning and shortly after nine at night. Needless to say, these customers depart immediately.
Notable Doughnut: Blueberry Cake ($0.25). There's something special going on with Mrs. Johnson's version of a blueberry cake doughnut: The taste of real blueberries is so fierce that it almost seems technologically intensified. Whether or not that's the case, this is a rich, sweet, almost tangy version of what can sometimes be a boring doughnut. It is definitely worth your while. And your quarter.