Sublime Spiral: Charles Is Definitely in Charge of Cinnamon Rolls in Houston

It was a strange time for a traffic jam on Ella -- 7:30 on a Friday night. Getting closer, I saw that the long line of cars in the street was for the drive-through of the retro Shipley's, the one with the giant neon doughnut sign.

"Jeez, what's up with that?" I asked my significant one, who works in the area. "A Friday night run on doughnuts?"

"People 'round here love their Shipley's," she replied. "It's like that most Friday nights."

The Oak Forest and Garden Oaks neighborhoods are the hottest real-estate spots in Houston, and as a result, many new chain restaurants are popping up on Ella Boulevard north of the Loop. But even if a Dunkin' Donuts encroaches, it won't challenge the dominance that little Shipley's has enjoyed since 1963.

However, Shipley's doesn't rule every category of doughnut in that part of town. Not in the cinnamon roll sector. As many area residents already know, that primacy goes to Charles Donuts, located in a small shopping strip next to the Kroger on 43rd Street.

Whereas many cinnamon rolls are dense, doughy and overly sweet, Charles's version is light, airy and barely sweet. Instead of concentrations of cinnamon and icing, the cinnamon on the Charles roll is dispersed evenly, like tiny spice stars in a spiral doughnut galaxy.

The other standout at Charles is the kolache. I don't care much for kolaches with fillings tucked into thick, chewy white-bread buns. A Charles kolache has a pale-yellow flaky pastry surrounding the mildly hot sausage.

Though there's not a large variety, the other doughnuts at Charles are delicious, too, particularly the buttermilk cake cruller. In addition, regular glazed doughnuts are for sale, in just a single row. The baker knows where people go for glazed yeast doughnuts, and puts out large trays of quickly depleted cinnamon rolls, because it's obvious where people come for those.

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