How our man on the town ate every doughnut he could find — almost
By Jason Frye • Photographs by Andrew Sherman
First came frozen yogurt, the 72-item topping bar and paying-by-the-pound. Next it was gourmet cupcakes. For a brief and brilliant moment, these two overlapped and the dentists of Wilmington rejoiced.
Now there’s a new sugary obsession taking over the Cape Fear region. Doughnuts.
In every part of the city and in every beach town around there’s a new place touting its doughnut prowess. We’ve got doughnut shops, like Britt’s, that have been serving since 1939 and other spots that haven’t been open 1,939 hours; we’ve got Krispy Kremes and Dunkin’ Donuts; we’ve got Entemanns and Little Debbie and Hostess selling doughnuts in every grocery and gas station around.
In short, we have reached Peak Doughnut.
All of that is the long way around to say this: I made it my New Year’s resolution to eat every doughnut in town — save Britt’s because it’s open seasonally but I know its doughnut well.
Lose weight? Nah. Eat better? Nope. Eat all the doughnuts? Yes, sir, sign me up.
I approached my resolution with zest and enthusiasm, but I am sad to report that I have reached Peak Doughnut and I failed in my endeavor to eat every doughnut in town. I did, however, eat 40 doughnuts from four of the most prominent doughnut shops in town: Wake N Bake, The Donut Inn, Rise, and Duck Donuts.
Here’s what I learned.
Wake N Bake
Carolina Beach, Downtown Wilmington
All of us know what’s up with Wake N Bake, and whether you decide on a pair of morning doughnuts at 8:40 a.m. or just the perfect sugary hit at 4:20 p.m., these guys deliver. There seems to be a bottomless bucket of creativity in the kitchen there because of the glazes, toppings and fillings in its yeast doughnuts, cake doughnuts, filled doughnuts, fritters and stuffed doughnuts. Want Fruity Pebbles on a doughnut, or maybe potato chips? They got you covered. In need of a Boston Cream doughnut AND bacon? Got it. How about a slice of pie in your doughnut (because why not make the Turducken of doughnuts)? This is your place.
Glazed This yeasty delight serves as the base doughnut at Wake N Bake. It’s big, but the glaze isn’t too heavy, so it’s easy to eat without feeling like you’ll shoot off into outer space.
Pebble Rock When you add vanilla glaze and Fruity Pebbles to the classic glazed doughnut, you get this sweet, crunchy, fruity (?) delight. There’s a delightful play of textures here with the still-crunchy cereal and the soft doughnut that makes this a star. Plus, Fruity Pebbles.
Wake N Bacon Maple glaze and crumbled bacon meet atop the standard glazed doughnut for a sweet/savory treat with the added bonus of bacon. It’s a good version of the bacon doughnut (would be better if Benton’s Bacon were used, but what wouldn’t?), but the interplay of salt and sweet is better served in the following doughnut . . .
Chocolate Couch Potato . . . where the chocolate glaze delivers a sweet punch and the handful of crumbled potato chips bring a salty, crunchy element that’s a thing of beauty.
Vegan Glazed The vegan edition of the glazed doughnut. Smaller than its non-vegan cousin but no less tasty. The texture is different — this doughnut is denser — but the flavor is spot-on. If you like vegan food.
Cake-of-the-Day: Pumpkin A solid cake doughnut with a light fry and no lingering greasy feel or flavor, it was neither too pumpkin-y nor too spicy, but was a good balance of both.
Dat Ghost Fire A beautiful, but intimidating doughnut, this Boston Cream-based confection is sweet, hot and irresistible. The ghost pepper-infused chocolate glaze, candied jalapeño, chocolate-cherry whipped filling will make you scratch your head, but grab a glass of milk and take a big bite. You’ll find the pepper in the chocolate, and boy, is it ever in the chocolate, but trust the lactic sugars in the glaze and the cream filling to help dull the capsaicin punch and you’re in for a treat: chocolaty, the surprising fruitiness of the pepper, the lovely cream filling. It’s a superb doughnut for fans of big heat and doughnut aficionados alike.
The Donut Inn
Wilmington at the corner of Eastwood and Oleander
Doughnuts, fritters, cigars (not the smoking kind, the pastry roll made of cinnamon, brown sugar and walnuts) and some excellent breakfast sandwiches, plus the charming accent of a South African doughnut attendant, are on offering here. They’ve added a handful of bagels to the menu and are slowly expanding their lineup across the board.
Classic Glazed This is a fair representation of the style. Not too much yeast, not too much glaze, plenty of pillowy doughnut goodness.
Apple Cider A good crusty, cakey doughnut that delivered on the cider flavor and didn’t kill that with too much cinnamon and sugar coating. It didn’t over-deliver in the apple or the cider department, but a touch more of each would possibly make it a next-level doughnut.
Maple Glazed Base doughnut plus maple glaze, sans bacon. In fact, the only maple doughnut I tasted without bacon. Needs bacon.
Chocolate Glazed This is a lovely doughnut to look at. Nice chocolate glaze, pretty caramel and vanilla drizzle, nice edge of sprinkles. If you’re the chocolate-coated doughnut type, give it a whirl.
Jelly Doughnut It’s a pillowy, powdered sugar-coated, raspberry jelly-filled doughnut that would make an awesome base for a take on the Monte Cristo sandwich.
Blueberry A cake doughnut with a hint of glaze. It’s good, light and easy to eat, especially with a cup of coffee.
Old Fashioned The malty sweetness of this cakey, unglazed doughnut makes it a top-notch representation of the style. As with the Blueberry, it’s small and easy to eat.
Raised Sugar It’s a glazed doughnut minus glaze plus cinnamon and sugar. And it’s good, but I say commit, man. Commit to the classic glazed or the smaller, cakey cinnamon and sugar doughnut, or bust your resolution (and pants) wide open and get both.
Vanilla Fluff Another filled doughnut that’s been doused in powdered sugar, but this time it was filled with vanilla fluff. It’s a split doughnut that practically begs for a savory addition like a bit of crumbled bacon or a cheeseburger.
Boston Cream An exemplary Boston Cream doughnut. The chocolate glaze and vanilla cream match nicely, and the doughnut itself is soft, making for quick eating.
Glazed Croissant The surprise hit of The Donut Inn, the glazed croissant was buttery, crispy, perfectly sweet and outstanding.
Britt’s Donut Shop
There’s only one kind of doughnut here: perfect. It’s a yeast doughnut fried to the ideal balance between soft, airy interior and crispy exterior, then the doughnuts are fished out, put on a stick and mopped with a simple glaze. Somewhere in the process these doughnuts acquire a hint of salt — is it the recipe or the sea breeze? we’ll never know — and that balance of salt and sweet, airy and crispy makes for an ideal doughnut experience. Stand in line like a sucker and get a bag (or two) to go, or walk right in, belly up to the bar, order a cup of coffee or milk and a bag of doughnuts and eat them right there. Open seasonally. If you don’t know when, I feel sorry for you. (OK, it’s March 27.)
Mayfaire right behind Five Guys Burgers
Duck Donuts comes to us from the Outer Banks of North Carolina and they’re doing something different: making doughnuts a la minute, which is a fancy way to say they’re making doughnuts to order.
That’s right, no big rack of doughnuts going stale. No case of doughnuts getting cold. Only a machine that plops out perfect little doughnut dough rings into hot oil and a two-minute wait while the doughnuts cook, flip, cook and then cool. And then someone slathers on the toppings you want.
And they’ve got toppings for days. Your choice of Coatings — glazed, powdered sugar, peanut butter icing, maple icing and more — and Toppings — like sprinkles, bacon, Oreos — and Drizzles — hot fudge, raspberry, blackberry and salted caramel — on a fresh doughnut. How’s that?
Doughnut: Bare The plain doughnut, no coating, topping, drizzle or frill. This vanilla cake base is delicious, plain and simple. A little sweetness from the batter, but nothing overwhelming. On the flip side, it’s not underwhelming, in fact, it’s got a lot of flavor and texture going on and makes for a fine morning treat.
Lemon Coconut The subtleness to the lemon flavor and the nutty coconut make this an interesting confection in that it’s neither too lemony nor too coconutty, but, rather, is just right.
Peanut Butter with Chocolate Drizzle Dear Duck Donuts, please take a lesson from Spinal Tap and turn the Peanut Butter up to 11.
Cinnamon Bun A tasty option where the cinnamon-sugar coating takes the place of icing and a bit of vanilla drizzle gives you that cinnamon bun feel you’re looking for, except it’s nothing like a cinnamon bun.
Vanilla with Salted Caramel Drizzle More salt in the salted caramel drizzle would make this pop. Or, even better, how about a little sprinkling of some sea salt from right here in Wrightsville Beach or from Duck Donuts’ home base, the Outer Banks? Just a pinch of salt somewhere to bring a little balance back into the glaze and drizzle.
Maple Bacon A stellar doughnut. Building off that awesome base, they add a thin bit of maple and then big, meaty, smoky chunks of bacon. It’s what you want in a bacon doughnut.
Landfall Shopping Center
Rise opened in Durham in 2012, and its menu consists of two things: biscuits and doughnuts. The biscuits are excellent, taking a great and simple biscuit, then stuffing some deliciousness — fried bologna, eggplant “bacon,” country ham, even just plain old butter — between the halves. Its doughnuts are much the same: a bit of the traditional with some wacky new things thrown in for good measure.
Glazed What I love about the plain old glazed doughnut is that it shows everything — the good and the bad — that goes into the doughnut. This one is most excellent. Yeasty, sweet, beautiful, the right size, it’s everything you want in a glazed doughnut.
Chocolate Icing As chocolate iced doughnuts go, it’s at the head of the class. The chocolate is rich and there’s just enough there to give you a good chocolate fix without making you feel like you just ate a can of icing.
Vanilla with Sprinkles As someone who doesn’t like sprinkles, I was not a fan of this doughnut. That said, it’s the glazed doughnut (awesome) with vanilla icing (awesome) and sprinkles (meh), so it tastes good, it’s just not for me.
Old Fashioned with Lemon Icing This delicious cake doughnut is topped with a lemony drizzle and is almost scone-like in flavor and texture.
Cinnamon Twist Sometimes the simplest doughnuts are the best, and this one is a simple braided doughnut bar that shows how good just a few ingredients can be.
Apple Fritter If you like fritters, you’ll like this fritter. Crispy, apple-licious, and awesome, it’s a crowd pleaser.
Maple Bacon Bar A Long John-style doughnut with a whole strip of thick, smoky, salty bacon. If they toned down the maple glaze just a little it would be perfection.
Crème Brûlée Go. Now. Get. A. Dozen.
Pineapple Basil with Pistachios One of the most interesting, and most flavorful, options on its doughnut menu, this one really shines. The pistachio brings in a bit of earthiness that tempers the sweet pineapple, and the herbaceous basil gives the whole thing a mouthwatering quality that’s hard to replicate.
Caramel Peanut Long John The caramel’s sticky and the peanuts are salty and the texture of the Long John is just right.
Pumpkin Spiced Latte Because why not?
S’More I’m not a fan of s’mores (crazy, right?) but this marshmallow fluff filled, chocolate and marshmallow and graham cracker topped doughnut makes for a pretty good reinvention of the campfire classic.
Cheerwine So many places will put Cheerwine in or on a thing to no good end. Not so here. This is a glazed doughnut with an awesome Cheerwine glaze.
Caramel Apple This doughnut’s filled with apple butter and topped in a caramel sauce, so it tastes like the real thing minus the risk of pulling out a filling.
Chocolate Chocolate Cake A chocolate cake doughnut with chocolate icing and crumbled chocolate cake on top. What’s not to love?
So that’s it. A near-40-year-old man eating 40 doughnuts and throwing his sugar-smeared hands in the face of a sensible New Year’s resolution. Unlike the weight that will certainly be hanging on for the next five years, I’m unsure about Wilmington’s ability to support all but the strongest and most inventive of doughnut shops for the long haul. But that’s OK. Five years ago we were up to our eyeballs in empty yogurt cups and cupcake wrappers and, hey, we’re still here. We’ll survive the inevitable passing of the doughnut craze and we’ll all fall in love with the next thing: perhaps artisanal mac n’ cheese served in a cone.
Jason Frye is in a doughnut-induced coma until Feb. 2, at which time he will rise from his bed and test the wind for the aroma of doughnuts; if he smells a doughnut, that means a hot, humid summer with a terrible beach body; if he doesn’t smell a doughnut, that means a hot, humid summer with a terrible beach body.