Have you ever had a fresh doughnut? I mean a really fresh one? Straight out of the oil, barely cool enough to hold, with the glaze just beginning to solidify? There's nothing quite so decadent, especially when it's after midnight and you're eye-crossingly drunk.
Oh, for my early twenties, when my friends and I trolled the dives in San Francisco's Polk Gulch. The Motherlode (working tranny gals), the Rendez-Vous (working boys), the QT (disco's last gasp) -- all have since been straightened up, and probably for the better, but in their declining years the scenery was educational, and the beers cheap. As the bars closed, we'd trudge up Polk Street to Bob's Donuts, where the owners, a couple in their fifties, were frying up batches of raised-glazed doughnuts and dunking them into the icing bath. There were always three or four people at the Formica counter, often homeless guys sipping 65-cent coffees or old women who couldn't sleep.
These folks had the right idea, for, as far as I'm concerned, there's no reason to eat doughnuts during the daytime. They're already too stale. With that in mind, I set out on a week of late-night doughnut raids. Here are my notes.
Time: 10:08 p.m.
Place: King Pin Donuts, 2521 Durant Ave., Berkeley, 510-843-6688.
Scene: King Pin is a Cal institution, and just about every student and stoner in Berkeley knows that if you head there after eight you can catch the doughnut gurus at work. It's amazing how many doughnuts one can make in a walk-in closet, and if you can endure the crush of too-soft bodies filling up the store, you can easily score a half-dozen, then plop yourself down at one of the sticky communal tables in the grubby courtyard outside to sugar up and people-watch. As a rule, the cake doughnuts come out first, because the raised ones take time for the yeast dough to proof. At King Pin, by 10 p.m. the chocolate-frosted have been raised and what we Hoosiers call "long johns" start appearing. I first tried a coconut-sprinkled cake doughnut and an old-fashioned (the dense, rustic-looking ones). Both were decent, but after an hour or two in the display case they had already gotten too old for my taste -- the distinction between crust and crumb was already blurred, and the doughnuts had become chewy. Even hot, I find King Pin's raised doughnuts too bready, but the cooks dip the chocolate ones in real chocolate, not just chocolate-flavored icing, so you taste cocoa, not wax.
Time: 10:45 p.m.
Place: Happy Donut, 940 San Pablo Ave., Albany, 510-526-3839.
Scene: The Albany branch of the Happy Donut chain could be any cluttered, well-worn, strip-mall doughnut shop in America, complete with workers revving up for the midnight shift and seven Richmond cops who'd snuck across city limits on a break. When I called earlier, the counterperson told me that the cakes and French doughnuts -- the puffy, eggy, fluted ones -- are freshest between 8 and 10, and the raised doughnuts finish around 11. Sure enough, a friend and I arrived in time to capture a blueberry doughnut just as its plush texture, reminiscent of a white wedding cake, began to stiffen. As we popped airy glazed-raised doughnut holes into our mouths, where they melted away on contact, and sipped water to dilute some of the sugar buzz, the first rack of glazed-raised emerged from the kitchen. They deflated at the slightest touch. Perhaps, god forbid, there is such a thing as too fresh.
Time: 10:18 p.m.
Place: Krispy Kreme, 1441 Fitzgerald Dr., Pinole, 510-262-6590.
Scene: The Union City Krispy Kreme stays open until midnight on weekends, and the drive-thru window at the Pinole branch never closes. To my horror, though, I discovered that Pinole shuts down its doughnut line at 10. Some people think Krispy Kremes are the best doughnuts ever and some think they're way too sugary. To me, the appeal is in the whole KK experience: staring at the workings of the Rube Goldbergian machinery as it ferries doughnuts down a stream of hot oil and then through a curtain of icing. Gawking as my fellow Americans order dozen upon dozen, carting the boxes away in two-foot stacks. Eating that hot, fresh ring, which tastes like a breath of sugar air, in three bites or less. They say you can replicate this by sticking a cooled-off doughnut in the microwave for six seconds, but it just ain't so. It's a good thing Krispy Kremes are so sweet: They make it easy to stick to my limit of four a year, fresh or no.
Time: 9:45 and 11 p.m.
Place: Colonial Donuts, 3318 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland, 510-893-2503.
Scene: Colonial is the thinking person's doughnut shop, a clean and bright storefront populated with late-night chess players, college kids staring into their organic chemistry textbooks, and old men reading paperbacks and scowling at anyone who disturbs their concentration. My friends and I hit Colonial twice, once to sample their loaf-shaped glazed buttermilks, which we gingerly pulled apart into moist, delicate chunks, with just a hint of tanginess. We returned an hour later, following our failed Krispy Kreme run, to have at the old-fashioneds (dense from the get-go) and French (overglazed lumps). Just as my companions started complaining of stomach ills, sprinkles-covered cake doughnuts came out, so I had to buy one, raving over its elegant crust and tender crumb. In general, I'm a raised-glazed man, but there's nothing like a fresh cake doughnut to make you believe your quest for perfection isn't futile. There's also nothing like five doughnuts in two hours to make you crave a pint of vinegar.
Time: 11:15 p.m.
Place: Andy's Donut Stop, 971 23rd St., Richmond, 510-232-6057.
Scene: Andy's starts production later than the other stores, so if you're in the mood for a newly fried glazed doughnut at 2 a.m., this is the place. If you ignore the bars on the windows, Andy's is just about the homiest doughnut shop around, aging into its fifties with scuffed linoleum floors, yellowing countertops, and elementary-school Halloween decorations. An 11 o'clock run will only get you fresh cake doughnuts with chocolate icing or straight-out-of-the-tub maple icing, a mystical substance that glazes anything that comes within six inches of it. Beautiful. The neighborhood is sketchy, to say the least, but Andy's is a haven of safety, thanks to regular stops by Richmond's finest. A couple of them looked mighty familiar from my Albany trip earlier in the week, and I wasn't sure whether one's suspicious glare was professional appraisal or wary recognition. Or both. After all, how many law-abiding citizens show up at doughnut shop after doughnut shop in the David Letterman hours, sticky with sugar and bleary with nausea?