698 State Route 75, Imperial Beach
Carla’s been begging me to stop by one of this town’s legends next time I’m down I.B. way. Stardust Donuts. Honestly, donuts aren’t my thing. Too cakey, I always thought. Not to mention cholesterol city.
“They’re part of my childhood,” she says. “Please?”
Well, maybe a couple of donuts would be all right, with maple icing, plus a coffee. ’Course, between getting up and getting there, stuff happens. A whole morning’s worth, and half the afternoon.
When I finally jump off the bus where I.B. straggles onto the Silver Strand, it’s around 4:30 p.m. I run and walk along Highway 75, until…ah, yes…hiding behind a little clump of tropical foliage sits Ed and Cliff Arnold’s Stardust donut shack. Been hearing about the cinnamon donuts for years.
Except — flip-sign in the customer window says “CLOSED.”
“It’s simple,” says Ed, when I spy him behind the glass, working away in the kitchen. He’s got a lotta hair, and it’s all white. “As soon as we run out, we close. We’re out.”
He points to the empty trays. No dough, no nuts. Dang.
“But,” he says, like I bet he says a thousand times a week, “there’s always tomorrow.”
“When you open?”
“Around ten. Tennish.”
So today, I managed to get here at about 1:30 p.m.. And, yes! “OPEN” signs all over the place.
Ed Arnold and his brother Cliff are working inside, and maybe half the racks are filled with their famous rings.
A girl is standing at the window in front of me (there is no inside). Melissa. “No one has donuts like theirs,” she says. She gets two chocolate donuts and two cinnamon rolls (89 cents each). “I’ve been to every other place in I.B., and they just don’t taste the same.”
“Everybody starts off with the same commercial donut-dough mix,” says Cliff, “but we add things like fresh eggs and shortening. Exactly what we’ve been doing for 44 years.”
I’m looking at a rack of uncooked buttermilk twists, waiting to be baked and glazed.
“I thought you only sold donuts,” I say.
“It doesn’t have to have a hole to be a donut,” Cliff says.
“Our cinnamon roll doesn’t have a hole,” says Ed. “Or the long johns.”
These guys should know. They have been making and selling them here since 1967. And before that, says Ed, their grandma Kitty Keen sold them downtown, starting in 1929.
The choices these days are glazed, chocolate, cinnamon rolls, old fashioned, buttermilk twists, one with a raspberry filling, and a caramel pecan cinnamon roll ($1.49; they only make it Thursday–Saturday). But today’s Wednesday. So I go for a glazed and a cinnamon (89 cents each) and a coffee ($1.20).
Ed asks if I want sugar and milk in my coffee, and when I say “sugar,” he mixes it in himself.
The donuts? Delicately crispy on the outside, melty tender inside. I’m no expert, but it does taste like you’re eating something legendary. I feel lucky to be here. Ed says they’re getting on — he’s 73 and Cliff’s 68 — so they’ve cut back on their hours. (They used to start preparation in the middle of the night, to be open at 6:00. “We’re not fast food, like burgers, where you cook only when you get the order. We have to be ready ahead of time.”)
I’m chewing away when I get to talking with Scott, who’s from Arizona. He’s a snowbird, a lawyer. “Did you know,” he says, “Americans munch 10 billion of these every year? And the size of the donut hole changes with the economy?”
I’d read that the “hole” idea came from a New England sea captain, Hanson Crockett Gregory, around 1847. Story went that Gregory’s mom had made him up a package of big fat olykoeks — the Dutch pilgrims’ “oily cakes” — to last the voyage in his sailing ship. Only trouble was, he couldn’t steer and hold his oily cake at the same time. So he impaled it on one of the spokes of his steering wheel and had himself an instant donut holder. He told the ship’s cook to make them with holes from then on.
Good enough yarn that you want to believe it. ’Course, let’s be practical: the hole helps the dough cook evenly all the way through.
Ed says donuts became popular during the First World War, when they were served to U.S. troops in France — called Doughboys, and not by coincidence. Then, partly thanks to the Salvation Army, they stayed plentiful and cheap through the Great Depression.
“Our grandmother, Pretty Kitty Keen, had donut places all through the Depression,” he says. “‘Keen’s Donuts.’ In World War II, they built her a place across from the Convair #2 plant, on Pacific Highway. She stayed open 24 hours for all those Rosie the Riveters. I remember. I was four or five.”
When they moved in here, in 1967, I.B. was much busier, says Ed. “Vietnam, Ream Field, Navy — we were open from 5:30 a.m. till 11:00 p.m. every night. That was work.”
Then he’s off back to help Cliff dunk the twists into the glaze. But before he does, I get a whole bag of cinnamon, glazed, and chocolate donuts for Carla. Except, dang. Now I’ve got the hots for that caramel pecan cinnamon roll I can’t have until tomorrow.
“See you soon,” I say to Cliff. “The wife, you know. Once she’s on a roll…a caramel pecan cinnamon roll…” ■
The Place: Stardust Donut Shop, 698 State Route 75, Imperial Beach, 619-424-6200
Type of Food: Donuts
Prices: Most donuts, 89 cents; caramel pecan cinnamon roll, $1.49; coffee, $1.20
Hours: About 10:00 a.m. till they run out of donuts, daily
Buses: 901, 933, 934
Nearest Bus Stop: SR 75 at 7th Street (901); Palm at 9th Street (933, 934)