631 B Street, Downtown San Diego
I’ve been hearing about this marriage for three months now.
The marriage of the donut and the croissant, that is. Happened back in May. By a Frenchman living in New York, natch. Dominique Ansel. Feathery croissant dough folded back and forth in layers and shaped like a donut. They say it’s a sensation there, with lines forming outside every morning, starting at six o’clock.
Then they also put on all the crazy things people do put on donuts, like glazes and maple, and whipped cream, and bacon, even a splash of likker.
Man, I’m shivering at the thought. Because, yes, I’m a fan of that super-flaky croissant dough — I never really have gone for the cakey dough you get in donuts. I’ll put up with it to get that buzz from the icing, but love? No.
Carla, on the other hand, never met a donut she didn’t adore. Irreconcilable differences!
But now comes hope: the Cronut. Best of both worlds. Could save the marriage.
Which is why I’m down here tramping along B Street at around 5:00 in the afternoon, looking for this new donut place I keep hearing about.
Supposed to have gourmet donuts…and thar she blows just past Sixth Avenue, gold lettering on the window and a chalk-written list of the day’s flavors on a sandwich-board menu at the entrance.
Except…there’s a hand-painted sign scrawled in whitewash across the window glass. That one stops me in my tracks.
I’ve heard that this little biz turns into the running of the bulls every morning, when the owner Santiago Campa opens his doors at 7:00. He sells gourmet donuts, the kind you happily pay three bucks for because they’re handmade, twice the standard size, and often loaded with, like, Jim Beam Whisky or real cinnamon, or they’re Vermont maple-syrup donuts wrapped in bacon, or donuts tossed in genuine Saigon cinnamon. Donuts might be a kind of a no-no healthwise, but when these guys popped up and said to the passing public, “You deserve to indulge yourself a little,” it struck a note.
Guess I’ll have to come earlier. According to the guy inside, Nik, they’re often run out by 10:00 in the morning. “It’s been like this ever since we opened at the end of March,” he says.
So next morning here I am again, this time right around 10:00 a.m. Crack o’ dawn for me. B Street is fresh and buzzing with junior office staff out on errands for their bosses. And, yes, this time Donut Bar has donuts left. Don’t see no Cronuts, though. Emily, one of the bakers, is bringing out a rack of bright-red-topped donuts. Huge. Looks like there’s bright-green chunks of moon rock scattered across the raspberry glaze. Actual pistachios. “We call this Raspberry Pistachios,” she says. Then she disappears into the back and returns with a rack of “Coconut Dreams.”
Better act quick. I get that raspberry pistachio and the coconut dream. Three bucks each. Oh, and I see Vermont maple bars are going for a dollar. I get one of those, too. Plus one “buck-a-cup” coffee. Good price, and really good cawfee.
Problem is, there’s no real place to sit down. It’s pretty small in here. The counter and displays and ovens take up most of the room.
“Why don’t you bring it upstairs?” says this guy. Turns out to be the owner, Santiago. “I’ve created a lounge up there. Comfy chairs, Wi-Fi, view of B Street, swing tables for your laptop. It’s a great working space.”
I go on up. Sink into a beautiful deep leather chair by the windows. Have to google “donut” on ye trusty iPad, because suddenly I want to find out about what I’m eating before I eat it. I mean, I get the “dough” part, but why “nut?” And why the hole?
Now I remember a stat a guy told me months ago down in that other donut Mecca, Stardust in I.B. Scott. He was a snowbird. “Americans munch 10 billion of these every year,” he said. “And the size of the donut hole changes with the economy.”
Like, the bigger the hole in the economy, the bigger the hole in your donut.
Uh, let’s give that idea a maybe.
His theory about how the hole happened in the first place? “It was a New England sea captain…”
Afterward, I checked out what he told me. Seems a Captain Hanson Crockett Gregory, around 1847, had a mom who made him up a package of big fat olykoeks — the Dutch pilgrims’ “oily cakes” — to last the voyage on 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 the steering wheel, and presto!, he had himself an instant donut-holder. He told the ship’s cook to make them with holes from then on.
I like the story, but I have my doubts. There’s another, likelier motivation for the hole: it helps the dough cook evenly all the way through. And the nut? That’s just the chopped-out hole of dough that also gets fried.
So I’m reading and chewing and slurping, loving the pistachio donut, although it’s the coconut one that wins the day. Strips of coconut flesh give it a kick of authenticity — this is real coconut, not just flavoring.
And the maple bar? I’ll take that home.
Santiago comes upstairs to check on his customers. Says he’s here till midnight most days with the baking crew, and back by 5:00 in the morning. “Not for wimps,” he says. But he loves it that this is his ship. He used to work for big hospitality outfits, like Four Seasons Hotels.
Have to ask: Do people object to paying $3 for a donut?
“They cost $3 because they’re big, 3½ inches,” he says. “And all the ingredients are high end. The maple-syrup donut wrapped in bacon? We don’t use animal fat or beef lard. We sell only what we can make here. That’s 2000 a day, max. Krispy Kreme does ten times that. That’s why we have to stop when we run out.”
Santiago says he’s always here when the night shift ends and the day crew arrives. “We line the entrance as the night crew leaves, clap and cheer them all the way out. Because they’re the unsung heroes.”
And the Cronut? Next time I pass Donut Bar, it’s late afternoon — I’m heading for the Fifth Avenue trolley station — and I see this guy inside cutting circles out of square chunks of dough on the flour-dusted counter behind the display cabinets. Have to ask what he’s doing. Turns out he’s from 7th Café, around the corner. Javier Jiménez. “Santiago and I are working together on this,” he says. “It’s our version of the Cronut. We’re calling it the CroBar. The pastry’s got eight folds in it, to make it feathery like a croissant. It’s taken a lot to get it right.”
They only make them when they have time. Then they bake them overnight. In the morning, the CroBars are usually the first to go.
Promised one of those suckers for Carla. Means I’m going to have to get up even earlier. Sigh. The things you do for love.
- Prices: Donuts, $1–3; Coffee, $1 and up
- Hours: 7:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m., or till they sell out, Monday–Friday; 8:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m., or till they sell out, Saturday–Sunday
- Buses: All downtown
- Nearest bus stop: Sixth and Broadway
- Trolley: Blue Line, Orange Line
- Nearest trolley stop: 5th and C