Ken Leighton 4:30 p.m., May 28
Mary's Donuts: equal parts quirky and delicious
24-hour Santee donut shop has decades of personality, and tasty donuts to match.
“I’ll be heading to dinner tonight in Lakeside,” says the woman behind the counter at Mary’s Donuts (9031 Mission Gorge Road, Santee, 619-448-4800). “At the rodeo,” she adds, almost as an afterthought.
That introduction, unsolicited, prompts a long discourse on Lakeside (“it’s horse country!”), rodeos, and beauty pageants. “Back in the day,” she says, “really skinny girls used to always win the Miss Lakeside contest. Now it’s more…full-figured girls.”
To illustrate that last point, she draws an hourglass in the air with her hands, the movement suggestion a voluptuous lady.
“Good for them!” she continues, enthusiastic over the success of buxom beauty queens.
Then she talks about how she doesn’t really eat that many donuts. Don’t get her wrong, she loves them, but after looking at donuts all day every day (“we’re open 24/7/365!”), she loses the taste for the fried batter nuggets.
All this talk...banter, if you will, segues into the undeniable realization that Mary’s is a venerable institution of crullers, fritters, and donuts of all stripes. Snapshots of customers line the walls so that no space is left uncovered by their countless faces. Some of the photographs are of seventies and eighties vintage, with the mullets and mustaches to prove it!
The entire place oozes personality. Sitting and watching the lone donut maker shape, fry, dunk, and sprinkle all the donuts is magical. His stoic efficiency is a sharp contrast to the effusive charm of the lady at the counter, a perfect foil to her conversational vim and vigor.
Of course, this being Santee, a discrete stack of religious tracts abuts the wall at the far end of the dining room. Salvation near at hand.
But the donuts...Oh, the donuts. Mary’s big sellers are the crumb donuts, blueberry donuts, and apple fritters, which the the counter matron describes as “cow pies,” somehow making bull turds sound appealing.
The crumb donuts come in the raised cake style. Fully ensconced in a spicy, apple-y streusel, they’re exquisite.
Still better are the blueberry donuts, made in the denser classic cake style. The bold, blueberry flavor percolates through the tender pastry, which dissolves, at the first hint of biting, like a Nethacker trying to fight a black dragon without SDSM. (Fact: anyone who can get that reference without googling it gets some kind of geek prize.)
Yet, despite the excellent donuts, Mary’s biggest charm is its sense of self. The way the staff’s attitudes seem suffused with decades of random, East County donut culture, and vice-versa. It’s a haven for anyone who likes his donuts served up with a dose of personality and a touch of history.