This is the second column in a three-part series on Chicago restaurants
CHICAGO— In the 1990s one of Saturday Night Live’s most popular recurring skits was a group of “pure” Chicagoans who were superfans of the Chicago Bears football team. The characters sat around a table in a sports bar discussing Windy City sports and their idol, Mike Ditka. The oft-repeated gag line that is still in the 21st Century lexicon was delivered in a blue-collar Midwest patois, and was the exclamation point on each of the character’s sentences, “Da Bears!”
The skit, titled Bill Swerski’s Superfans, featured SNL stalwarts Mike Myers and Chris Farley, also included Cheers alum George Wendt on occasion, and writer/comedian Robert Smigel. It aired in several incarnations throughout the decade. The characters were shown swigging beer and eating barbecue ribs and Polish sausage. To my recollection, they never ate donuts, but had the skit’s writers thrown a few dozen donuts on the table, everyone watching would have believed they belonged there.
In this columnist’s mind, Chicago is the donut capital of the world.
Fried bread topped with sugar and Chicago go hand in hand. Southern California might host a few of the country’s most famous donut spots, but that part of the world is mostly recognized for healthier eating. There is absolutely nothing healthy about a donut, and Chicago— though it’s one of the country’s top restaurant cities— is a place for great donuts.
Every May I travel to Chicago to attend The National Restaurant Association’s annual trade show and convention. I love attending the show, but I love visiting Chicago restaurants even more.
This trip I decided to determine the top donut restaurant in the nation’s top donut city in under 90 minutes.
My Uber driver, Mamoud, picked me up outside my hotel this morning at 9:00 a.m. sharp. I mapped my course a few days ago, and I let Mamoud know that we would be making multiple stops to multiple donut shops and I hoped that he hadn’t had breakfast yet.
Our first stop was Brendan Sodikoff’s Donut Vault. Sodikoff is the hottest restaurateur in the city these days and Donut Vault is attached to his flagship concept— and home to his bakery/commissary for all of his restaurants— Gilt Bar. The Donut Vault is no more than an outside door to a small inside corridor with one employee and a line around the block. Once they run out of donuts— and that happens almost every day— they close for the day. I have visited The Donut Vault on previous trips and have always been pleased with their offerings. Today, they would need to hold up to four other Chicago donut institutions.
The line was unusually short and I opted for a cinnamon cake, old-fashioned, chocolate glazed, a cruller, and a vanilla glazed. After they were boxed up I hopped back into Mamoud’s car and headed to donut stop number two, Do-Rite Donuts.
I have been following Do-Rite on Instagram for the past year. There was a short line and five Chicago firefighters immediately ahead of me in line— a good sign, and a notion once-removed from the stereotypical cops-eat-donuts theory. The Donut Vault only offers a limited amount of donut varieties each day. Do-Rite, and all of the others, have the typical donut assortment of a few dozen varieties.
The Do-Rite donut that had been catching my eye on Instagram was a chocolate glazed with a thick, dark spreading of what looked like chocolate cake frosting one each donut. I ordered one of those, a pistachio-topped donut, a regular glazed, and a maple-bacon topped beauty. It was 9:32 a.m. and we were speeding our way towards the 50 plus-year Chicago institution, Stan’s Donuts.
If one were asked to describe what a downtown Chicago donut shop of 50 years might look like, we would draw from a pre-conceived notion of a downtown diner straight out of central casting, but Stan’s looks more like one of these modern cupcake concepts than a downtown donut shop.
Stan’s had the largest selection of the five and I chose another pistachio, a Cap’n Crunch donut, a chocolate glazed filled with vanilla custard (my favorite donut filling), and two others that I didn’t ask what they were and just pointed to two interesting looking donuts.
The backseat of the Uber car was smelling much better than the typical big-city taxi as we headed to Glazed and Infused, a donut shop attached to an Italian restaurant and run by a couple of very friendly hippies who no doubt made every performance of last year’s Grateful Dead reunion concerts at Soldier Field.
Glazed and Confused is located just under the iconic Marina City parking towers that were featured on the cover of Wilco’s album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The G&I guys were affable and when asked, “What are your most popular flavors,” offered up a chocolate-topped, a maple-bacon long john, buttermilk bar, and a banana walnut donut.
Firecakes was the last stop and the second-smallest of all of the contenders. The line was short and, based on the lady working behind the counter’s recommendation, I opted for a vanilla ice, butterscotch praline, old-fashioned buttermilk, pistachio, orange-poppyseed, a peanut butter and jelly, and a raspberry-blood orange filled donut. I also bought a few donuts and a cup of coffee for Mamoud.
Almost 72 minutes after we left the hotel on our donut excursion, Mamoud and I pulled up to the front door and the bellmen helped me with all five donut boxes, which were much heavier than I expected. I went up to my room and started the tedious process of determining the city’s best donut shop and the best overall donut in Chicago. Did I eat all 28 donuts? No. Did I take a bite of every donut? Almost. Was there a clear winner? Yes.
In my opinion, The Donut Vault is the best donut shop in Chicago. Some would argue that they only offer six donuts, but I would counter that point by reporting that only focusing on six donuts each day allows them to achieve donut excellence.
The best donut of the lot? It was a tie between the cinnamon-sugar at The Donut Vault and the raspberry-blood orange filled donut from Firecakes.
It’s 9:45 a.m. and I need a nap.
Bombolini (Italian Donuts)
3 each 1/4 oz. packages rapid rise yeast
1/4 cup Warm water
1/2 cup + 1/4 cup Sugar
1 each Whole large egg
2 TB Unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup Whole milk
1/2 tsp Kosher salt
4 cups All-purpose flour
1/2 tsp Ground cinnamon
1 tsp Extra virgin olive oil
1 recipe Italian cream or chocolate filling
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, mix the yeast, water, 1/2 cup sugar, egg, butter, milk and salt on medium-low speed until incorporated, about 2 minutes. Slowly add in the flour 1/2 cup at a time until 3 cups have been added. At this point, add flour in tablespoon increments just until the dough is no longer super sticky.
Transfer into a mixing bowl, coat with the olive oil and cover. Allow the dough to rise in a warm place until it has doubled in size, about 1 hour. Punch down the dough.
Transfer to a lightly floured surface and roll the dough out to 1/4“ thick. Using a 2-inch round cutter, cut out 24 rounds and place on a floured baking sheet and let rise again until doubled, about 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the remaining 1/4 cup sugar with the cinnamon and set aside.
In a large heavy pot, heat 4-5 cups canola oil to 350. Add the Bombolini, 3 at a time, and fry until golden brown, about 30-40 seconds. Turn once halfway through. Transfer to paper towels to drain. While still warm, sprinkle with the cinnamon sugar. Fill them with the Italian cream using a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2” tip.
Italian Cream Filling
2 TB Powdered gelatin
1/2 cup Cold water
4 each Large egg yolks
1/2 cup Sugar
1/4 tsp Kosher salt
2 cups Whole milk
1 tsp Vanilla extract
2 cups Heavy whipping cream, cold
1 recipe Bombolini
In a shallow bowl, add the water and sprinkle the gelatin evenly across the top. Allow to bloom for at least 5 minutes.
Combine the yolks, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl and whisk until smooth and pale yellow, about 2-3 minutes.
In a 2 quart sauce pot, bring the milk just to a boil over medium heat, watching closely so as not to scorch. Very slowly, pour into the yolk mixture so as not to scramble the eggs. Return to the pot and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula until the mixture thickens, about 6-10 minutes. Remove from the heat and immediately strain. Let cool to 160.
Heat the gelatin just enough to dissolve and fold into the warm custard with the vanilla extract.
In the chilled bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whip attachment, beat the heavy cream on high until medium peaks form, about 3-4 minutes and fold into the custard. Let cool at room temperature, or chill overnight. Transfer to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2“ tip and use to fill Bombolini.
For Chocolate Variation:
Finely chop 6 ounces (by weight) of bittersweet chocolate and place in a large bowl. When you strain the hot mixture, strain it over the chopped chocolate and stir until completely incorporated and smooth.