Automatic Rounds

Photo by Anne FishbeinLa Habra, which is somwhere east of Norwalk and south of Hacienda Heights, is a distant, freewayless area that can most charitably be called "Whittier-adjacent." But when the wind is from the east, you can smell Krispy Kreme from almost half a mile away in La Habra, a sweet, oily, superpenetrating scent with the Pavlovian qualities of hickory smoke, a scent synonymous with doughnuts served straight from the fryer, a fragrance, say researchers, that turns even milquetoasts into bull elephants in rut. If you straightened out the line of cars at Krispy Kreme's drive-thru window, it would probably stretch halfway to Palm Springs.

Like certain other unhealthful yet addicting substances, the pan-Southern doughnut chain Krispy Kreme Doughnuts got its start in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. La Habra is the chain's Omaha Beach in California, the beachhead of a planned multistore assault on the West Coast.

"This is the third time I've driven out here this week," confides a Santa Monica man who has just chewed out a counterperson for resting his order near a refrigerated case. "And if I don't get these doughnuts home while they're hot, I'm afraid my girlfriend is going to kick me out of the house."

Like a line of people waiting to get into the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland, the queue to reach Krispy Kreme's takeout counter extends along a wall, doubles back on itself and spills out a doorway to the sidewalk, where it sometimes curls halfway around the building. And like the lines at Disneyland, it moves very fast: by a gift-shop display and an assortment of Krispy Kreme memorabilia, and past a long glass window that faces onto the doughnut-making apparatus, a vast device of conveyer belts and boiling vegetable oil that looks like a magnificent machine out of the imagination of doughnut-mad Homer Price, a midcentury extravaganza of mass-produced sugary treats.

When the line is extremely long, a shop manager wanders around, thrusting hot doughnuts into the hands of everyone who is waiting. If you have a little time on your hands, it is possible to follow a single doughnut through its various stages of manufacture. Little rings of yeast dough are extruded onto a conveyer belt, travel in baskets to a heated chamber where they double in size as they rise and descend on an elaborate system of pulleys, and eventually spill out into a bath of hot grease, where they immediately puff and turn brown. One machine flips them over halfway down the bubbling spillway, and another showers them with a continuous sheet of glaze as they drain on the belt. Counterpeople scoop the moving doughnuts into boxes of a dozen, which seem to be bought as quickly as they are made. The show is half the fun.

The Krispy Kreme doughnut itself is a slender thing, smaller and somewhat denser than, say, its Dunkin' Donuts counterpart, pleasantly oily, fried to a consistent tawny brown, and crisp only in the sense that it is slightly tauter than what it surrounds, like a semithick skin. As with a proper bagel, the nature of this skin seems to check the normal expansion of the dough, which, instead of being puffed out and airy like a freshly made Winchell's doughnut, remains dense, moist, almost liquid, with a texture very close to the sort of risen egginess that you find in a hot popover.

The thick, ultrasweet glaze, which seems to cling to every square micron of the doughnut's surface, would probably be too cloying if you didn't eat the doughnut as quickly as God and the Krispy Kreme corporation intend, which is to say, practically suck the thing through your nose. Unless you have joined a 12-step program for pastry abuse, you will probably end up inhaling a half-dozen of the things before you realize you've opened the box.

(Hot glazed doughnuts are the currency of Krispy Kreme, and the various raspberry-filled doughnuts, chocolate doughnuts, crullers, and doughnuts with sprinkles are apparently made in a different part of the store. They are also quite ordinary: Stick to the original.)

But for all of its legend, for all the hysteria, a Krispy Kreme tastes very much like . . . a doughnut. Even Winchell's glazed doughnuts, after all, taste pretty good when you manage to snag one straight out of the fryer.

The last time I attempted a survey of Los Angeles doughnut shops, a pastry-chef friend turned a glazed doughnut I liked over, pinched some dough from the unglazed surface at the bottom and invited me to taste a bit.

"Unbaked heat-'n'-serve roll, right?" she said.

She was, of course, right.

Pilgrim, don't let them cool on you.


1801 W. Imperial Hwy., La Habra; (562) 690-2650. Drive-thru open 24 hours. AE, Disc., MC, V. Recommended dish: glazed doughnuts.


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