Ignore the warnings from my doctor over its main components — flour, sugar, and oil — they only make me yearn for doughnuts more. Scoff if you will, upper-crust gourmand, but twice in my recent life I have had near-mystical experiences partaking of fried dough goodness.
The first was on the sunrise banks of the Mississippi at New Orleans’ Café Du Monde, where a beignet and café au lait turns timid tourists into superheroes. More surprisingly, in San Francisco’s tiny, excellent Ton Kian dim sum restaurant, a friend urged me to bite into a crispy globe of fried flour that yielded an unexpected air burst of orange-tasting perfume. Maybe that level of exquisite sinker dining isn’t available in the Santa Barbara area, but there are treasures to be found.
What about “real” doughnuts, you might ask first? You know, the ones American law enforcement are alleged to devour. Cake doughnuts do have a certain comfort-food genius, I admit: Chocolate-chocolate, glazed, and jelly-infused staples can satisfy hunger deeply, though the rush is quick to collapse. Better yet, they’re found everywhere, whether it’s a fine chain like Krispy Kreme or a hometown mom ’n’ pop. But my preferred ballpark is exotica drawn from world cuisines: rural America’s fried dough, Italy’s zeppole, Mexico’s churros, and even the Finnish munkki.
My favorite American entry to that global fare is the apple fritter, perhaps because its ingredients include real fruit, mitigating my sense of guilt. Fritters are beautiful lumpy confections, often glazed or sugared but always enveloping stuff ― even corn and clams, for instance. In this town’s case, the best apple fritters are at Spudnuts — huge and chew-pliable — though Eller’s Doughnuts offers a more densely crunchy version. Crisp outer shells are where the pleasure lies.
New Orleans’ elegant beignet is also available at two places I know. A fluffy version can be had at the Palace Café during lunch service, three or four in an order for $4.50. Chewier, but quite satisfying, are the Cajun Kitchen version. You get a few more for a bit less. Neither serves chicory coffee, alas.
The best savory doughnut in town hails from Isla Vista’s sweet, small Italian restaurant, Sorriso Italiano. Here, the accent is the stuffing inside, which is a bit of a shock, but the version basically throws the lowly calzone into the deep fryer, turning easy food into a combo of my favorite things: meatball meets doughnut — pure joy while you eat. Let regrets come later, like any fine sin.
My most transcendental doughnut-like comestible experience occurred in a Thai restaurant: the Mesa’s Meun Fan. Lots of Thai people own doughnut stores across this broad country; some also serve Thai food there, like the Eller’s on upper State Street. Meun Fan serves something simply called Thai Donut. Piping-hot and finger-shaped, it’s crispy outside and dreamy soft inside, served with a bowl of reduced sweetened and condensed milk.
Maybe my doctor don’t want me to eat it, but I think Buddha stretching in the restaurant’s corner would approve. Doughnuts, he might say, round out the journey of existence, and the traveler.