Dorothy forgot the doughnuts.
Shipley's was three blocks away from the fast-food place where I worked in the summer of 1982. During morning shifts, sometimes, we'd send an emissary to trade bags of food for boxes of doughnuts. This was one of those mornings, and Dorothy volunteered to make the run.
She was a sweet kid, the little sister we all looked after, so eager to fit in, eager above all else to drive. So I tossed her the keys to my 1970 Chevy station wagon. Three blocks.
Forty-five minutes later, the back-door buzzer rang. Dorothy was standing there, trying to choke out words between sobs. All I could make out was "wrecked … your … car!"
She didn't have to say that, really, because she had a deathgrip on a disembodied piece of side molding. I took the molding. My manager said I looked like a junkyard barbarian, all set to lop off her head. Instead, I gave her a polyestered hug and told her it was going to be OK, despite all evidence suggesting that, no, it wasn't.
Dorothy had fooled us all. We had assumed she was 16, legally old enough to have a job, old enough for a driver's license. Except that she was really 15 and had never been behind the wheel of a car. Ever.
At the Shipley's drive-through, she had brushed a pole, panicked and hit the gas instead of the brake. The pole was yellow. I know this because a sulphurous roller-coaster of a dent rippled the length of the driver's side. From then on, my car attracted hit-and-run drivers like a demolition derby.
That Shipley's run became our crew's all-purpose exit punch line - for dates, going-away parties, drunken customers - a memorial to Dorothy's biggest mistake that day: 'Don't forget the doughnuts.'
On the Drag, 2 a.m.
My old Impala came to mind this month as I mapped out the 70-mile loop for my All-Night Doughnut Drive. Somewhere in this 2 a.m.-to-sunrise tour, I wanted to hit a Shipley's without, you know, hitting it. I also wanted to pay respects to the homegrown hole-y trinity: Ken's, Mrs. Johnson's and Round Rock. Plus Krispy Kreme and a few smaller shops.
Not a quest to anoint the best. More like a seven-stop sugar-fueled travelogue. So please, no shrieking about Gourdough's. They've gotten their fair share of ink here. (But I couldn't resist saying something after Men's Health magazine called them out for being - gasp! - bad for you. Read more at www.austin360.com/forklore .)
The doughnut tour starts beneath the head of the elephant deity Ganesha, painted above a window marked with the number '24,' as in '24 hours,' because Ken's Donuts never closes. At 2:30 a.m. on a weeknight, the place is full of sleepless collegians. There's a dude over there in flip-flops with a basketball jersey and a mohawk. Over here's a shy guy with a girl who's way out of his league. He ends up buying, and I'm guessing the free doughnuts have clouded her judgment.
The chocolate doughnut holes taste like chocolate, worth mentioning because doughnut-shop chocolate almost never tastes like actual chocolate. Doughnut holes are the canaries in the confectionery coal mine. If they can't cut it, get out of there. At Ken's, they sing with notes of cocoa and blueberry. Sour-cream doughnuts shaped like gears have the texture of velour, and if velour were food, this is what it would taste like.
The Different Thing here is a tray of samosas, tucked behind the cake doughnuts. The tricorn hats of crisp dough tingle with curried potatoes, and I have to remind myself that this is a doughnut story, not a samosa, kolache, croissant or breakfast taco story, because most of these shops have at least one of those things. Another time.
The best things at Ken's are the plain old glazed doughnuts, $5.50 a dozen. They're mostly air and shell, the cottoned breath of bread and yeast rising just long enough for the flaked sugar to explode, the flavors lacquered in place by a sheen of oil.
The simple supremacy of the humble glazed will play out in every shop on this pre-dawn expedition.
Airport Boulevard, 3 a.m.
Mrs. Johnson's doughnuts can save you from the Wrath of Mom . So says Jaime Olivas, just past her curfew-breaking days.
'I would bring them back to my mother, and it would get me out of trouble every time,' she says. It's 3 a.m., and Olivas is hanging out with four friends after a night at the Kasbah hookah lounge.
I still remember my first trip to Mrs. J's 26 years ago, with friends who called it 'Drunken Donuts.' The lady at the drive-through handed each of us a hot glazed the minute we pulled up.
The greeting still takes the shape of a vowel, an exclamatory doughnut 'O' as counter man Gopal Patel hands across a sample. The hot glazed is as soft as the night, and there's joy in a raspberry-filled jelly bomb and a strawberry-iced that tastes like … strawberry.
The shop looks the same as ever, a fluorescent working space with a small counter and a view of prep tables and proofing racks, even a stand mixer with a hand crank. Doughnuts start at $5.50 a dozen.
A Techron sign forms part of the display rack, as if doughnuts needed any kind of fuel additive. The drink cooler is full of sugary Mexican soda, energy drinks and strawberry milk. It's a playground for your inner child, a pit stop for the road trip to Round Rock.
At 3:50 a.m., we're alone in the parking lot of the Lone Star Bakery, home of Round Rock Donuts . Alone except for a patrol car, which glides up to the drive-through the minute it opens at 4 a.m. Minutes later, Laura Green pulls up in her SUV to get doughnuts for the office - and for her husband's birthday. Inside, photographer Jarrad Henderson has worked a kind of charm to gain kitchen access, where he watches the bakers form the doughnut's iconic flattened oval shape - like fruit from an heirloom doughnut tree - and apply the amber glaze that gives it the (probably psychosomatic) flavor of candy corn.
I've never had one of these doughnuts fresh out of the fryer, and the living heat takes it to a higher place.
Meanwhile, the coffee is terrible. This is another hard truth about doughnut shops. That's probably why Dunkin' Donuts coffee has made such an impact, just the mere fact that it's OK.
Parmer Lane, 5 a.m.
Doughnuts are the end product of a machine that never stops. The floured air, the steady thump of the Hobart paddle, bakers in white making practiced glides across dusted tables, racking tray after tray of yeast doughnuts on their way to a showroom glaze, always feeding to the front.
The Shipley Do-Nuts on Parmer Lane might roll out 300 dozen doughnuts on a weekday, says manager Brandon Adkins, escalating to 9,000 doughnuts on the weekends. The store faces east, and Adkins says that when the sunrise floods in, it's like the light at the end of a rainbow. Maybe he's hallucinating from the Sunday crush, or maybe it's the spectrum of light bouncing off the jeweled phalanx of sprinkles or the glare from the acid-red icing of cherry doughnuts that taste like Skittles.
They're rocking AC/DC, Peter Frampton and other biscuits of classic rock. At 5:45 a.m. on a Wednesday, customer Mike Le is buying four dozen doughnuts: three boxes for his crew working on vehicle electronics at Fort Hood in Killeen, one box for the guards at the gate. He commutes five or six times a week.
A mixed dozen is $7, but glazed for $6.50 a dozen is the shop's sweet spot. 'When you go for doughnuts, let's face it, you're going for sugar,' Adkins says. 'And that's what the glaze is: pure sugar.'
Even so, I watch cake doughnuts float by on a lazy river of hot oil, and those fresh cakers hit the box as contenders for the glazed doughnut crown.
Donut Crown. Catchy name. It's our next stop, a tidy shop in a strip mall on Burnet Road with glazed gems on the smallish side and a killer supporting cast of twangy banana fritters and cake doughnuts of devil's food with chocolate icing. By the bag, by the box, in a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes, doughnuts are among civilization's last low-budget wonders. I'm astonished when my damage at Donut Crown is less than $8, for a half-dozen assorted doughnuts and four pastry-case showoffs.
The sprinkle doughnuts sparkle with the energy of a San Francisco street fair, electric blue on white, hot pink on brown. Cinnamon twisters glisten like new cars, and again the savory sirens call: fat pigs in a blanket, distended bacon-and-egg tacos and kolaches with a jalapeño blast that pushes us to the edge of gastric integrity. You don't appreciate the terrible power of doughnuts until you've already knocked back an assorted dozen.
I'm almost relieved that KC Donut on Brodie Lane is a bust. At 7:15 in the morning, they haven't put out the day's fresh glazed yet. A grown man lets out a cry of despair behind us. He buys a box of cake and sour-cream 'old-fashions' anyway. Croissants bulging like piñatas with ham and jalapeño bang our eyes against the glass.
Pulling out of KC, we see a Shipley's to the right, and River City Donuts is a short jog down William Cannon Drive. In this neighborhood, it's never a good day to be out of glazed doughnuts.
East Stassney, sunrise
Krispy Kreme is the place to go for stories.
Michelle Moore and her daughter, Macy, have stopped in from Amarillo on the way to Sea World in San Antonio. They've missed their shop in Amarillo.
Anna Bowers is here on her 12th birthday, radiant in braces and PJs and white slippers. Her mother, Cynthia Bowers, understands: 'My mom doesn't like Krispy Kreme because she says they just melt in your mouth and that's it and they're gone. I'm for the melt-in-your-mouth Krispy Kreme.'
Do you need to know anything more about Krispy Kreme's interpretation of the glazed doughnut, with its now-you-see-it shell and now-you-don't interior? Did you know they make a whole case full of other varieties (crullers, sour-cream, custard-filled, sour cream)? Me neither. Because nothing can touch a dozen glazed for $6.49, especially when the 'Hot Now' light is glowing.
Don't forget the doughnuts.
Doughnut shops in this story
• Ken's Donuts. 2820 Guadalupe St. 320-8484. Hours: 24 hours daily.
• Mrs. Johnson's Bakery. 4909 Airport Blvd. 452-4750, www.mjbakery.com . Hours: 7:30 p.m. to noon daily.
• Lone Star Bakery/Round Rock Donuts . 106 W. Liberty Ave., Round Rock. 512-255-3629, www.roundrockdonuts.com . Hours: Drive-through open 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Lobby open 4 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, until 2 p.m. Sundays.
• Shipley Do-Nuts . 10019 W. Parmer Lane. 218-4944. Hours: 5 a.m. to noon Mondays-Fridays. 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Find six more Central Texas locations at www.shipleydonuts.ws .
• Donut Crown. 7940 Burnet Road. 458-1177. Hours: 5 a.m. to noon Mondays-Fridays. 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.
• KC Donut. 8106 Brodie Lane. 282-1977. Hours: 6 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.
• Krispy Kreme. 701 E. Stassney Lane. 851-8888. Hours: 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays. 5:30 a.m. to midnight Fridays-Saturdays. Two more Central Texas locations at www.krispykremetexas.com .