On the Drag, 2 a.m.
My old Impala came to mind this month as I mapped out the 70-mile loop for my All-Night Doughnut Drive. Somewhere in this 2 a.m.-to-sunrise tour, I wanted to hit a Shipley’s without, you know, hitting it. I also wanted to pay respects to the homegrown hole-y trinity: Ken’s, Mrs. Johnson’s and Round Rock. Plus Krispy Kreme and a few smaller shops.
Not a quest to anoint the best. More like a seven-stop sugar-fueled travelogue. So please, no shrieking about Gourdough’s. They’ve gotten their fair share of ink here. (But I couldn’t resist saying something after Men’s Health magazine called them out for being — gasp! — bad for you. Read more at www.austin360.com/forklore.)
The doughnut tour starts beneath the head of the elephant deity Ganesha, painted above a window marked with the number ‘24,’ as in ‘24 hours,’ because Ken’s Donuts never closes. At 2:30 a.m. on a weeknight, the place is full of sleepless collegians. There’s a dude over there in flip-flops with a basketball jersey and a mohawk. Over here’s a shy guy with a girl who’s way out of his league. He ends up buying, and I’m guessing the free doughnuts have clouded her judgment.
The chocolate doughnut holes taste like chocolate, worth mentioning because doughnut-shop chocolate almost never tastes like actual chocolate. Doughnut holes are the canaries in the confectionery coal mine. If they can’t cut it, get out of there. At Ken’s, they sing with notes of cocoa and blueberry. Sour-cream doughnuts shaped like gears have the texture of velour, and if velour were food, this is what it would taste like.
The Different Thing here is a tray of samosas, tucked behind the cake doughnuts. The tricorn hats of crisp dough tingle with curried potatoes, and I have to remind myself that this is a doughnut story, not a samosa, kolache, croissant or breakfast taco story, because most of these shops have at least one of those things. Another time.
The best things at Ken’s are the plain old glazed doughnuts, $5.50 a dozen. They’re mostly air and shell, the cottoned breath of bread and yeast rising just long enough for the flaked sugar to explode, the flavors lacquered
in place by a sheen of oil.
The simple supremacy of the humble glazed will play out in every shop on this predawn expedition.
Airport Boulevard, 3 a.m.
Mrs. Johnson’s doughnuts can save you from the Wrath of Mom. So says Jaime Olivas, just past her curfew-breaking days.
‘I would bring them back to my mother, and it would get me out of trouble every time,’ she says. It’s 3 a.m., and Olivas is hanging out with four friends after a night at the Kasbah hookah lounge.
I still remember my first trip to Mrs. J’s 26 years ago, with friends who called it ‘Drunken Donuts.’ The lady at the drive-through handed each of us a hot glazed when we pulled up.
The greeting still takes the shape of a vowel, an exclamatory doughnut ‘O’ as counter man Gopal Patel hands across a sample. The hot glazed is as soft as the night, and there’s joy in a raspberry-filled jelly bomb and a strawberry-iced that tastes like … strawberry.
The shop looks the same as ever, a fluorescent working space with a small counter and a view of prep tables and proofing racks, even a stand mixer with a hand crank. Doughnuts start at $5.50 a dozen.
A Techron sign forms part of the display rack, as if doughnuts needed any kind of fuel additive. The drink cooler is full of sugary Mexican soda, energy drinks and strawberry milk. It’s a playground for your inner child, a pit stop for the road trip to Round Rock.
At Ken’s Donuts on the Drag, the chocolate doughnut holes taste like actual chocolate. You can’t go wrong with the regular glazed doughnuts, which sell for $5.50 a dozen.
From left, Dusty Rhodes, Matt Praisner, Brandi Emmerson, Jaime Olivas and Lauren Couch display the variety available at Mrs. Johnson’s on Airport Boulevard.