Was it Alexis de Tocqueville or Jonathan Gold who said, "Every city gets the donuts it deserves"? Either way, you have to wonder what Houston did to deserve Shipley Do-Nuts. The Shipleys may be lovely people, and the corporation gets much respect for being active in the community and maintaining its Houston roots. But their donuts are consistently mediocre.
Yet somehow Shipley has cornered the market for donuts in Houston. Even more puzzling is how many Houstonians consider Shipley's donuts to be top-drawer, as evidenced by the chain's high ratings on every collective-review site around. It's enough to make you want to smack James Surowiecki upside the head. Either these people have never had good donuts, or they don't care. I lost track of the number of times someone brought Shipley donuts into work and there were still some left at the end of the day. Let me repeat that: donuts were brought into an office, and at quitting time some remained uneaten.
Does a city need great donuts to be a great food city? Maybe not, but every other great food city has destination donut shops. New York has the Doughnut Plant; Seattle has Top Pot Doughnuts; Los Angeles had a Donut Summit last year... Do I need to go on? It's hard to imagine anyone lining up to buy donuts anywhere in Houston.
To be fair, Houston does a lot of things extremely well, culinary-wise, and a few things (e.g., kolaches and Vietnamese-Cajun fusion) that most cities don't do at all. But sometimes you just want a good donut.
I had originally planned a battle of chocolate old-fashioned donuts. But any piece about donuts in Houston has to include Shipley as a reference point. Here's what happened at the location at 3932 North Main, a few blocks from Shipley world headquarters, the recipient of the Press's 2010 Best Kolache award.
"Do you have any chocolate old-fashioneds?"
"I don't know. Is that an old-fashioned?" (pointing at a wizened cake donut on a battered tray below the counter)
"Then we don't have them."
Seriously? The city's leading donut chain not only doesn't have old-fashioneds, but doesn't even know what they are? That's like a Jewish deli not knowing how to make a Reuben sandwich. Sadder but wiser, I went with plan B: glazed raised donuts. I know Shipley makes those. I also tried donuts from Dunkin' (as an alternate chain reference point), the Montrose standby Christy's, and Fresh & Best in Bellaire.
To the judging!
Christy's Donuts (55 cents) The subtle glaze was refreshingly thin, but perhaps too much so, as it didn't conceal the dough's lumpiness. The interior was more spongy than puffy and altogether too dense, leading to a bready mouthfeel. I'm also subtracting a point because I was charged sales tax in contravention of Texas law. But bonus points for the gratis donut holes. And the chocolate old-fashioned wasn't half bad.
Fresh & Best Donuts (63 cents) The even, sugary icing flaked off in the mouth - nice! The interior was pleasingly raised, but could have used even more air pockets. Overall, this was a solid but unspectacular combination of the fried and sugar food groups. A fine golden hue, this donut looked the most like a Krispy Kreme (albeit twice as large).
Dunkin' Donuts (79 cents) Globs of sugar spotted the top of this donut, due to haphazardly applied icing. That's just lazy. The icing also tasted like it had too much of one ingredient. Vanilla, perhaps? It wan't an off flavor, like rancid grease, but it was a bit disconcerting. The interior was airy and light, just like it should be. But overall, this donut was a big disappointment . Then again, my usual at Dunkin' is the glazed blueberry cake donut.
Shipley Do-Nuts (53 cents) Thick, uniform glaze covered the darkest glazed donut I'd ever seen. Was this a donut or rye bread? It was also extremely tall; I could barely fit it into my mouth. The donut tasted like it had been fried a bit longer than usual, perhaps explaining the color. I'm not sure if this was intentional, but it made for an almost nutty flavor, which was surprisingly not bad. The interior was shot through with air bubbles, and pleasantly fluffy.
The Winner: Jeez, do I have to pick one? The efforts from Fresh & Best and Shipley were both acceptable. I might give a slight edge to Fresh & Best for the flakiness of the icing, but the Shipley donut had a more interesting taste.
A final caveat: everyone knows that glazed raised donuts are best when they are still warm from the fryer, with the glaze just cool enough to eat. I bought the above donuts at bakery temperature, which is how most people consume donuts. Maybe, just maybe, if I'd eaten them warm, this piece might have read more like Robb Walsh's paean to the Shipley on Ella.