This Lemon Is Actually a Dessert
Various locations (It's a truck)
If lobster rolls and Burmese cuisine get a truck, yeah, donuts had to get one too. Johnny makes the donuts at its shop in San Rafael, not on the truck (or van sometimes). They’re tremendous, and are actually sour cream and potato-based, which gives a little more of a fluffy texture to the regular yeast and old-fashioned varieties. The blueberry glaze is everything you look for in a blueberry pie, but in donut form. Don’t forget the cro-dough glazed with chocolate if you spot it. For San Francisco, hunt the truck down at Off the Grid and other constantly changing locations around the city.
Do we even need to tell you why this is included? Talk about magical words: “pork belly” and “donuts.” The pork belly gets oven braised overnight, cut into cubes, then deep-fried in beer batter. Then, a Maker’s Mark bourbon-maple syrup glaze (this is a bar first and foremost, remember) and a sprinkling of sea salt are the final flourish for this sweet-salty-meaty-fatty treat.
Take Nutella, the greatest Italian invention ever, pipe it into the freshest of donuts, and you get this bombolone. And although Heartbaker is no Italian bakery, it is (possibly) the greatest bakery in San Francisco you don’t know much about.
Hot, pillowy beignets. Brown sugar hot chocolate. The magnificent setting of the Presidio. Nothing hits the comfort spot better. Also available for dessert at dinner, it’s worth noting how a weekend hike followed by these beignets at brunch are one of the city’s great treats.
Bob’s is like your favorite well-loved “blankie” as a kid -- you love it dearly and it will always return that love no matter what. Bob’s apple fritter is a cinnamon-heavy city stalwart full of apples and a just sweet enough glaze. And don’t forget the Bob’s Challenge... nah forget it, you have no chance with the Giant Doughnut in just 2 minutes. No Hall of Fame for you but the quintessential basic old-fashioned or those magnificent apple fritters cannot be considered merely second place concession prizes.
The name hearkens back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when maritime workers in San Francisco spent more time in saloons on land than laboring at sea. And Barbary Coast’s idyllic, simple, homemade old-fashioned’s, twists, and crullers are anything by antiquated. The shop is right between a luxury hotel of Union Square and the um, not luxury, of the Tenderloin.
The Ferry Building kind of looks like Italy. The Bay and ferries are sort of like canals and gondolas, right? Ah who cares, have a zeppole. Or a full cone of them Saturdays at the Ferry Plaza Market, and enjoy these Italian-style lemon ricotta doughnuts (inspired from a pancake recipe) somewhere in that middle ground between a fluffy beignet and a sturdy, compact doughnut hole with powdered sugar instead of a glaze.
What doesn’t Nopa thrive at except basically unbeatable burgers, cocktails, wine, roast chicken, brunch, salads... you get the point. But nobody talks about Hannah Ziskin’s desserts and that’s a shame. She’s basically turning donuts into an art form using a sour cream base for old-fashioned doughnut holes and teaming them with pear butter and a crème anglaise, kicked up with cardamaro liqueur, and garnished with Asian pears since it’s winter. This is what happens when a jelly filled doughnut and a cream filled doughnut graduate is handed to an imaginative pastry chef.
Think back to third grade. You still weren’t past the cooties stage. You still hid a stuffed animal in your backpack. And of course, your two favorite things in life were peanut butter & jelly and donuts. But they were never together, until now. Stones Throw’s PB and J donut lets you dunk the sugared puff in PB, J, or C(hocolate!). Also cool: for future desserts, diners will get to write requests with stories about childhood sweets favorites.
Since Wayfare Tavern already rocks the two most important food groups for a satisfied diet (burgers and fried chicken), it’s only fitting that the third most important food group is also a key focus there: donuts. These are homey doughnuts with a refined chef’s edge, which should be expected with this being Tyler Florence’s joint. The dipping condiments change but the doughnuts themselves remain regal, puffy glazed yeast donuts -- usually scattered with some form of cinnamon and sugar and always with a sidecar donut hole or two.
Just look at that dessert. Donuts with flowers, not just flour. My god, we’ve reached that stage. Reverb has its stride as it reaches its first birthday. One staple all along has been dominating the cinnamon and sugar dusted, flaky and warm donuts genre, which is a bold move being just down the same street from Bob’s. If you aspire to serve donuts in this neighborhood, you better bring it. Reverb does with a brioche base, and each donut gets filled with ricotta mousse, then partnered alongside changing fruit sauces like passion fruit-nectarine or rhubarb, or the current one, a caramel apple compote. Wipe those cinnamon-sugar crystals off your lips, please.
All anyone talks about when it comes to this East Bay bakery with a daily kiosk in the Ferry Building is that the donuts are vegan. Vegan, vegan, vegan. Guess what? These are vegan donuts. We get it already, there won’t be a bacon version. Vegan or not, Pepples’ donuts are sensational and certainly one of the Ferry Building’s vital bites. The salted caramel donut is a worthy companion to Bi-Rite in our Salted Caramel Hall of Fame.
Dynamo changed everything for donuts. Everything. Its opening in 2008 was the biggest thing to happen to donuts since some really smart guy decided to have a pastry and punched a hole out of the center of it one morning. Dynamo is our donut purveyor of the food-centric, seasonal, organic generation, complete with delightful constantly changing flavors like apricot cardamom and lemon thyme, and even the annoying “+” sign in the name.
Cruffin, sch’muffin. Go ahead and wait in line at 7am. We’ll be taking our sweet time and grabbing one of the ever-changing donut flavors. These guys are the size of burgers -- filled, no, bursting -- with the likes of blood orange curd, apple cranberry, or lavender caramel inside. When you can get this morning version of Bananas Foster, don’t hesitate. Cruffins can wait.
After a few rounds of pisco sours and ceviche, it’s dessert time. Peru’s version of doughnuts is quite intriguing -- and absolutely as enjoyable as any beignet-churro-cronut-regular doughnut to be found. Picarones are warm, sweet potato and pumpkin fritters that will fool you into thinking their onion rings from their shape. And they're served with a spiced chancaca syrup for dipping (basically a maple syrup made from raw, unrefined sugar cane juice instead of maple).
Bacon. Jalapeño. Maple glaze. Classic raised yeast donut. Twisted goes all Guy Fieri on weekends with off-the-wall creations like Oreos and Nutella fruirritos (like Nutella donut burritos!). It always has the Baconpeño on weekends. On weekdays, you have to settle for a mere maple-bacon donut and BYO peppers.
The Ne Timeas Restaurant Group are the folks behind Flour + Water, also known as the city’s preeminent source of homemade and mind-blowing creative pastas. With dough on the mind, you’d think doughnuts are a skill of theirs. You’re right. Just walk across the street to their bucolic boutique/sandwich shop/all-around day-time nirvana, Salumeria -- only on weekends at brunch, however. While apple fritters reflect the persona of an apple pie with an obvious glazed doughnut sweetness, these are truly regular doughnuts given the apple and cinnamon sugar persona.
Admit it, you weren’t expecting any savory donuts on this list, were you? We’re full of surprises. And so are Sarah and Evan Rich, the fantastic husband-and-wife duo behind brilliant creations like Douglas fir levain bread and tajarin pasta with burrata and crispy chicken skin. At their constantly packed hot-spot, doughnuts are a “snack,” puffy and beignet-like, rubbed with dried porcini mushroom powder. Then diners dip the doughnuts into melted raclette cheese. Yes, doughnut-cheese fondue.
Beignets in San Francisco means Brenda’s. And at Brenda’s, you can cover your face in powdered sugar EVERY morning. Struggling between opting for plain, chocolate, apple, or the (supremely underrated) cheddar-crawfish? Get a flight, which is a thing you can get at Brenda’s. Bonus points for the crawfish being our only savory donut on the list.
So, cronuts proved that the whole 15 minutes of fame thing isn’t always true. Cronuts in New York (and their stepbrother cruffins here at home) are... still... bringing in the crowds. Fillmore Bakeshop’s croissant-donut hybrid was initially called a cronut, forced to change to kronut, and voila, back to cronut again we just discovered. Spell it how you want, but the flaky exterior and soft doughy interior is a dead-on perfect croissant in a donut shape, dusted with cinnamon and sugar. It tastes like the best of both the croissant and donut worlds, somehow managing to be better than either on their own. Pro tip: arrive before noon Wednesday to Saturdays.
Yes, I am telling you, the savvy San Francisco local, to go to Pier 39 to eat. Usually Pier 39 is a quick stop to show out-of-town guests the sea lions and then run away like a rhino (or angry sea lion?) is sprinting behind you. But slow down. There are literally bags (or buckets) of hot, perfectly fried-to-order miniature donuts dusted lightly with sugar to be had as you mosey along the Embarcadero post-sea lions. They aren’t greasy and they definitely aren’t a tourist trap.
Is it cheating that you can dunk Coqueta’s churros in liquid chocolate? Do churros even count as donuts? Yes. Why are we even debating this when you can get to the Embarcadero and start chocolate dunking?? The churros are great on their own, but let’s be real, you can drink a pint of this chocolate even without a churro.
Recently perusing the unbeatable array of mochi (get the azuki bean filled one!) at this over a century old sweets shop and old school “Leave It To Beaver”- esque lunch counter in the heart of Japantown, I came across “age.” Its label said “fried donut with red bean” and could have fooled me for a beignet with sugar crystals. How was I unaware of age?! These are Japan’s version of donuts -- savory with a hint of sweet filling-driven with just a thin outside layer of dough. It’s earthy with a little sugar in the background, a whole different dimension to the usually sugar focused donut species.
Love free donuts? Find out where to stock up for this year's National Donut Day on Friday, June 2, 2017.
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Trevor Felch is the San Francisco Editor for Zagat. He is such a fan of doughnuts and baseball that he almost tasted the donuts in the on-deck circle for this article’s research until learning it wasn’t dusted with bacon or cinnamon. Follow him @TrevorFelch.