9 Bolton St., Portland
Open daily from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m.
THE COOKIE JAR PASTRY SHOP
554 Shore Rd., Cape Elizabeth
Open Mon. through Sat. from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on Sun. from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
THE DONUT HOLE
Rt. 1, Scarborough
Open daily from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m.
When the Rangely-based Fitzy’s Donuts finally nailed shut its doors, I thought I’d never taste homestyle donuts again. I was driven to a vagabond existence full of Dunkin’ Donuts, Honeydew, and those teeny chocolate-frosted ones you get in the supermarket for about 50 cents per cellophane-and-cardboard-wrapped dozen. Outside of the odd apple donut fried to order at local country fairs, to me, the homemade donut was merely a mourned icon of the past. Although I hate to admit it, Dunkin’ Donuts became a suitable replacement for Fitzy’s, and I even began to go so far as to fiercely defend them whenever some schmo from New York opened up his big mouth about Krispy Kreme.
After some time, nothing, as far as my poor, misguided mind was concerned, could top two chocolate glazers and a large coffee from the D and D.
But as soon as the pre-orgasmic whispers of the impending arrival of Krispy Kreme donuts here in Maine began, and I gathered myself to ignore their purported warm frosted goodness, I was stopped dead in my tracks by the best honey-glazed I had, up until that point, ever consumed. What happened was, I bought a house with my fiancée, Jackie.
Wait, there’s more. I bought a house, with my fiancée Jackie, a block away from Tony’s Donuts.
Tony’s Donuts is one of those places that has denied the progression of time that rules so many other establishments in and out of the food industry. It’s a rip in the space-time continuum, where business depends on the creation and selling of basically one item. That’s an anomaly in this day and age, where coffee shops double as art galleries, and you can do all your banking right inside the local supermarket between the condoms and the health food. "DONUTS" the sign proclaims, that’s pretty much it.
So they’d better be good.
This was the first stop in my three-part search for donuts that made me feel like a kid again, the kind that make you stop and eat at the counter rather than jamming them in your gullet halfway out the drive-thru. My searching technique was rudimentary at best: the phone book coupled with asking some long-time Portland residents where to get the best donuts. The same names kept coming up: Tony’s, here in Portland: the Donut Hole on Route 1 in Scarborough, and the Cookie Jar in Cape Elizabeth. Hell, after downing about 50 hot dogs for this column a couple of weeks ago, a donut binge seemed pretty much in order.
I hit up Tony’s Donuts on a Saturday morning. The typical service dichotomy of Maine summers was well in place here; teenagers trying to make a few vacation bucks waited on the patrons while the foodstuffs were prepared by octogenarian donut-for-lifers. I also noticed what was to become a running theme in the donut shops: Everything was white, or off white, because eye-catching colors are for chains. I landed a half-dozen for two bucks and two quarters, and after biting into two or three, the ghost of Fitzy came charging back to fill the soulless void in my heart in which the corporate donut machine had dug its trenches.
These donuts, made on a much smaller production scale, are different than the ones you get at those places with the drive-thru. Their chocolate-glazed, molasses, and plain ones have a more chewy and textured crumb (fancy talk for more air pockets in the dough) meaning they’re less cakey than the others. It’s like the difference between artisan bread and commercially processed stuff.
Artisan donuts? Why not?
On the other spectrum end, the honey-glazed were wet with opaque frosting, and the fried dough flattened to wafer-thinness at my tooth’s pressure. This is the way a honey-glazed should be, not spongy at all, bouncing back to form after each bite. I want it to crumple, making mouth-stuffing easier and turning your hands into shiny, sticky, lickable denouement.
The Cookie Jar also hand-crafts their donuts to near-perfection. Jackie and I sat in our car and ate another half-dozen with bad coffee (a less positive trend of the classic donut shop is that their coffee is universally terrible. But, as bad as it is, it still makes a great dunk recipient). These good folks provide one of my favorite styles, the plain with sweet toasted coconut adhered by a bit of glaze, resulting in a chewy crust, a microscopically thin liquid layer of frosting, and finally the fried dough. Jackie declared these to be the best she had ever had.
The Donut Hole tells a similar white-walled, packed display case story, this time adding the convenience of a U-shaped counter with stools for in-house donut consumption. I couldn’t think of anything better to sum up the aura of the artisan donut shop: These are pastries meant to be savored. They have enough merit to be ordered, eaten and paid for as a meal unto themselves.
Is Maine the only place you can get artisan donuts? Of course not. But they are a slowly fading style of cookery that just might join the coelacanth in terms of rare sightings. Thankfully for us, the Portland area (true to locally based business-promoting form) seems to be able to support an unusual number of these shops per capita. In fact, at the Cookie Jar, a gentleman tourist purchasing a dozen commented that he had to drive all the way up to Maine every time he wanted good donuts.
"That’s right, come to Maine if you want good, homemade donuts!" the waitress chirped.
Support your local donut shop, folks, and fight the machine!
Andy King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org