Dough or dough not. There is no try.
That was the theme of a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, part of a quest to determine why the City of Roses has not been rebranded the City of Doughnuts. Sure, you’ve heard of Voodoo—those famously phallic doughnuts, which we like to think inspired a certain Lonely Island song. But even beyond this cult favorite, the city is rolling in fried dough—and you don’t have to wait for hours to get your hands on the good (or arguably, better) stuff in Portland.
Exhibit A: Blue Star Donuts, the next-biggest name in the city’s doughnut game. Stepping into Blue Star feels like the antithesis to the kitsch of Voodoo, with its clean white decor and minimal presentation. There’s no neon blackboard needed: The doughnuts, which are the result of an 18-hour brioche made with European-style butter, speak for themselves.
The first taste is momentous, yet every one of the eight doughnuts we sample is somehow better than the last. It is as if the perfectly zingy lemon poppyseed doughnut said “Enough!” to every muffin of the same ilk that had come before, staking an ultimate claim on the nutty-citrus combo. Another winner is the Meyer lemon, whose joy you get to experience not just once but twice as you lick your fingers clean (trust us, you will).
Then there’s the comparatively nascent Donut Byte Labs, where a robot helps churn out small batches of bite-sized doughnuts from within a humble food cart. They launched in 2015, after founder Dieter Davis took a sabbatical from the tech life to “learn, experiment with new flavors and offer something unique.”
That singularity comes from the irresistible nerdiness of it all. (“We pride ourselves on it,” Davis, whose email signature reads “Chief Donut Scientist,” says.) The employees are called Donut Technicians, the company Instagram is brimming with Star Trek references and a sign on the door says Caution: Donut Testing Area. They’ve even been known to call cinnamon sugar by its scientific name: Cinnamon C₆H₁₂O₆.
The culmination of doughnut-meets-food cart embodies what Portland is most known for. It’s a city with more than 500 food carts, of which Davis is well aware: “If all else failed, selling a food cart in Portland is easy.” And despite being parked 341 feet from Voodoo’s doors, Davis and his robot have what it takes to stand on their own. The chocolate sprinkle doughnut is straight out of Homer Simpson’s dreams, and the fan-favorite strawberry shortcake flavor uses local Oregon strawberries.
The third contender making a name for doughnuts is Pip’s Original Doughnuts & Chai. Co-owner Nate Snell exudes passion: Not just for his miniature bundles of fried joy, but for the community of Portland as a whole. “There’s a holistic and organic interaction with the customers,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a flash in the pan. I wanted to build a neighborhood stronghold.”
And it’s clear from the line out the door, even on a rainy Saturday afternoon, that he’s succeeded; inside, groups huddle together over plates stacked with dozens of doughnuts and mugs of chai. “Hype is something I’m averse to,” Snell explains on Right at the Fork, a Portland food podcast. For him and his wife, who run the company together, it’s about three things: “Simplicity, excellence and intentionality in how we treat people.” He strives to make everyone feel welcome and even tacks on a $30 “freedom to give” bonus to each employee’s paycheck to pay forward to charities of their choice.
Pip’s straightforward, simple menu of made-to-order mini doughnuts presents an alternative to what he says is an “overindulgence in flavors and options” in the food scene. “On an intellectual level, people like the idea of so many flavors,” Snell says. “But on an emotional level—I think it’s really overwhelming.” This explains why for the first year after they opened in February 2013, Pip’s had only two flavors on the menu.
Though they’ve since added a few more options, one of the originals is their flagship, can’t-miss flavor: raw honey and sea salt. It’s also the most Portland-per-square-inch item you’ll find, incorporating local gems like Bee Local honey and Jacobsen Salt Co.’s pink Himalayan salt. “It sounds so simple to the mind, but as soon as people taste it, their eyes get big, and it’s a revelatory experience, having that simple doughnut,” Snell says.
Despite the dense concentration of doughnut shops in such a small city, the camaraderie is strong. Take a cursory scroll through Pip’s Instagram account, and you’ll notice the recurrence of the hashtag #communitynotcompetition. “We really do feel like there’s a lot more power together than there is with all of us trying to struggle separately,” Snell says. These aren’t even the only doughnuteries on the scene—there’s also Coco, Annie’s and Delicious Donuts, to name a few.
RELATED How to Speak Doughnut »
“Ultimately everyone in the Portland doughnut world is doing something a little different, and everybody’s doing really well,” Blue Star reflects. It’s like a giant game of human knot: No one truly “wins,” and you have to keep holding hands in order to keep the momentum going. Snell echoes these sentiments as well: “When you get underneath the layers of the fancy food scene, that community spirit and geography is really what the beating heart of Portland is.”
To truly understand how full circle the story of the Portland doughnut scene is, we have to revisit a night in 1992 at the famous now-closed X-Ray Cafe that reads like a clip of Before They Were Stars. Voodoo cofounder (and X-Ray owner) Tres Shannon welcomed Snell and Chris Brady, owner of local Extracto Coffee, who were all connected through the city's infamous underground music scene, to his café for a taste of his latest food hobby: the doughnut. “We tasted it and were like, ‘Tres, that doughnut, that's terrible! Don't ever try to sell these things!’” he recalls with a laugh. Not only does Snell admit to being proven wrong, but it's this era he channeled when aiming to create the spirit at Pip’s.
“X-Ray Cafe was a safe space where people could come and be creative, where people could come from all walks of life. In the way that he treated people, this is the legacy that Tres from Voodoo built, whether he knew it or not.”
Please check your inbox to verify your email address.