Los Angeles Is a Doughnut Town

The market has been saturated and competitive for decades, but new shops keep coming with offerings like a taro doughnut from Hawaii.

Holey Grail, a Hawaii-based business with two Los Angeles locations, sells taro doughnuts fried to order in coconut oil.Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

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By Tejal Rao

Tejal Rao reported from Los Angeles, where she lives.

The Donut Hole, in La Puente, doesn’t sell the very best doughnuts in the Los Angeles area, but I love going there. Driving through its absurd, gigantic fiberglass doughnut — a pristine example of mimetic architecture — is a brief, giddy and almost spiritual experience. It is half the joy of being there, and it gives the doughnuts a bit of an edge.

An edge, architectural or otherwise, is practically required in the unusually saturated, competitive doughnut market of Southern California.

A shop’s extra attraction might be the availability of lottery tickets or Vietnamese sandwiches alongside properly crunchy, darkly fried old-fashioneds, as at Pronto Donuts in Monterey Park. It might be a glamorous seasonal doughnut, like the strawberry-stuffed beasts you can find at the Donut Man, in Glendora, from February to September.

I am consistently pleased by the simple chocolate glazed at Colorado Donuts — though if I’m with my nephews, the chewy, pull-apart, rainbow-colored mochi doughnuts from Mochi Dochi are always the stronger choice.

Alone, I will happily drive 45 minutes out of the way to Oliboli, in Tustin, for the Meyer lemon-glazed doughnut, and the singular ham-and-cheese-filled doughnut with its finely bubbled surface and sweetly perfumed center, made from a dough raised slowly over 40 hours. If I’m anywhere near a Sidecar Doughnuts location, I have to go in and get one of whatever happens to be just out of the fryer, so recently garnished that the glaze is still wet to the touch.

Top: Freshly fried doughnuts at Oliboli. Middle: Mochi doughnuts from Mochi Dochi. Bottom: Doughnuts being glazed at Sidecar.Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

Southern California is rich in small, local chains and independent shops, including many owned by first- and second-generation Cambodian immigrants, like the 24-hour California Donuts, which fries custom, bubbly-letter-shaped doughnuts that can spell a phrase — a consistently delightful item to bring to a party, depending on the message you choose.

The 2020 documentary “The Donut King,” by the filmmaker Alice Gu, told the story of Southern California’s distinctive doughnut industry through Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian refugee who arrived here in 1975 and went on to build an empire — becoming a multimillionaire in the process.

Mr. Ngoy, who signed up for a training program through Winchell’s Donut House in 1975, bought his first shop just a year later. By 1980, he owned 20, and started sponsoring visas for Cambodian immigrants, creating a pipeline for them directly into the booming doughnut business of the 1980s and ’90s. His legacy isn’t just in the abundance of independent doughnut shops that define the region, but also in their use of pink boxes.

Despite the concentration of the market, new shops still find cult followings. The Hawaiian company Holey Grail Donuts sells taro doughnuts fried in coconut oil, and opened its first Los Angeles-area location in December, followed by a second one last month. Run by the siblings Nile and Hana Dreiling, who grew up eating potato doughnuts in Eugene, Ore., Holey Grail started in 2018 as a small truck in Hanalei, a town on Kauai.

It’s no secret that the best doughnut is always the one fried most recently, and that after sitting in a pastry case for hours, even the best doughnut will start to deteriorate. The draw of Holey Grail, and it’s a powerful one, is that the shop fries all of its doughnuts to order.

An unhurried countertop machine drops rings of dough into hot coconut oil, flips them over as they set and color, and spits out deep golden rings that the shop workers glaze neatly with vanilla and maple, chocolate, or honey and sea salt.

Still warm, these doughnuts have slightly bubbly, wonderfully crunchy bottoms and a very gentle but satisfying chew. There is no waxy feeling at the back of your tongue from the fryer fat, no aftertaste of the oil. The doughnuts are small, crisp and barely sweet. They are packed in sleek, black boxes to go, but it’s worth eating at least one right away, while it’s at the height of its powers.

The dough is built from a base of poi — a sticky, starchy paste of boiled taro corm and water. Taro isn’t a traditional doughnut base, but it is a pillar of Hawaii’s native culture and diet — an ingredient that farmers are slowly working to bring back to Hawaiian farmland. The business buys taro paste from a handful of farms in Hawaii, most of it harvested and processed in Hanalei.

Some doughnut flavors are mainstays on the menu, while others change every week, shifting with Ms. Dreiling’s purveyors of chocolate, fruit and other ingredients. On my most recent visit there was a yuzu, strawberry and hojicha number, made in collaboration with the chef Akira Akuto of the restaurant Konbi (now-closed), as well as a tangy passion fruit, orange and guava. Groups of teenagers around me sipped elaborate drinks made with fresh nut milks as they waited, while a woman with shopping bags fielded a call from her nanny.

Holey Grail specializes in an extreme of the city’s vast and glorious doughnut scene — the luxury doughnut. But it’s not the only kind on offer here. The real beauty of doughnuts in Los Angeles is that the second you want one, wherever you are in the city, an open shop seems to appear.

California Donuts, 3540 W Third Street, Los Angeles, 213-385-3318, cadonuts.com.

Colorado Donuts, 1578 Colorado Boulevard No. 14, Eagle Rock, 323-340-1962, instagram.com/coloradodonuts.

Holey Grail Donuts, 148 North Larchmont Boulevard, Los Angeles, no phone, holeygraildonuts.com.

Mochi Dochi, 2130 Sawtelle Boulevard No. 211, Los Angeles, 424-397-2991, mochidochi.net.

Oliboli, 135 West First Street, Suite B, Tustin, 714-760-4876, oliboli.com.

Pronto Donuts, 555 West Garvey Avenue, Monterey Park, 626-284-3336, facebook.com/people/Pronto-Donuts.

Sidecar Doughnuts, 631 Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica, 310-587-0022, sidecardoughnuts.com.

The Donut Man, 915 East Route 66, Glendora, no phone, thedonutmanca.com.

The Donut Hole, 15300 Amar Road, La Puente, no phone, no website.

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