Covered in cloudbursts of white flour from his black backwards cap down to his black hoodie, black jeans, and black Crocs, Shawn Petersen looked like he had just gone 12 rounds with a pair of chalkboard erasers. On a Friday afternoon in late January at Donut Run, the new doughnut shop that Petersen started with Nicole Dao, his wife, the exhausted proprietors sat behind a table and started their next never-ending task: building tall enough stacks of powder-pink folding boxes to prepare for the following day’s rush. Since celebrating a grand opening January 2, business had been a blur. Customers routinely lined up outside the shop from before its 7 a.m. opening, even with temperatures in the low 20s. The metal trays behind a doughnut window were often picked clean before its 2 p.m. closing time. On that Friday, while Petersen and Dao folded boxes, an unfortunate latecomer would walk by and attempt to open the locked door every few minutes.
Donut Run has become an instant draw on the small strip in its northern D.C. neighborhood of Takoma, luring customers from other corners of the city by sharing each day’s menu of ring-shaped, photogenic doughnuts with a video posted to its Instagram story page. The tiny shop, from two self-described food enthusiasts who have no formal training, represents the crest of a doughnut wave in Washington that has been swelling throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Photogenic by nature and a natural inhabitant of to-go boxes, doughnuts are taking off again. An exciting new class of treats — sweet glazed nostalgia bombs at Donut Run, stuffed bomboloni at Toscana Market, cheeky riffs on Girl Scout cookies from Call Your Mother, Asian-American inventions from Rose Ave Bakery, and massive brioche balls that incorporate a host of global flavors at La Bodega — has arrived on the scene in the past 10 months. Compared to the District’s last rise in trendy doughnuts, circa 2013, this crop feels less focused on sheer mass or over-the-top flavors and more rooted in a foundation of soft, yeast-based dough.
On a recent visit to Donut Run, a young woman wearing high-waisted jeans, Dr. Martens boots, and a “Bernie 2020” tote bag dug into her box right outside Donut Run. The prized ring doughnuts inside are so light and soft they seem like you could indent them with little more than a sideways glance. These doughnuts have a warm, yeasty flavor and a bubble-filled structure in a circle that stretches wider than the average palm. They’re cartoonish in size, symmetry, and their resemblance to the pink-glazed pastries that delighted Homer Simpson.
“It’s 95 percent air,” Dao says. “We sell air.”
The barely there quality of Donut Run’s dough is apparent in simple flavors like plain glaze and chocolate with sprinkles. Glazes like a silky mango-coconut — made with tiny Champagne mangos Petersen is effusive about — or maple-sweet “French toast” are more innovative diversions. Petersen and Dao have followed a vegan diet for the past 15 years. Although Donut Run’s doughnuts do not contain eggs or dairy, they don’t want to brand the restaurant as a vegan doughnut shop. Petersen is adamant that products like mung bean-based Just Egg are equal to or better than the ingredients they’re replacing in Donut Run’s recipes.
Petersen, the half of the couple who admits to perfectionist tendencies, has been working on refining a doughnut recipe for the past six years, and the pair got their start selling doughnuts at punk shows. They go to Donut Run as early as midnight to start futzing with dough and get to glazing a few hours later. They’ve added staff to meet demand, but they’re still maintaining their day jobs.
The high school sweethearts from Gaithersburg, Maryland, clearly have a thing for classic American doughnut shops, which date back to the 1930s. The original sketch of the shop’s name is scrawled on a white bag from another doughnut shop the couple visited on jaunts through Southern California and Las Vegas. Drawn by a tattoo artist friend of the owners, the logo — a pair of smiling, wide-eyed anthropomorphic doughnuts holding hands as they run — looks like something out of the mind of Walt Disney, but with a counterculture edge.
Like Petersen and Dao, Toscana Market owner Daniele Catalani is banking on the appeal of an airy doughnut. Catalani’s new retail and takeaway operation in Mt. Vernon Triangle sells bomboloni, a spherical doughnut from Northern Italy, with all sorts of fillings. A plain option, dusted simply in sugar and lemon zest, strips away competing flavors for a light dough that retains a chewy bite thanks to the addition of high-gluten and cake flours.
“You can have more than one, because they’re light,” Catalani says of the softball-sized pastries. “You’re not going to go to sleep after eating one or two. There’s no heavy glaze.”
Catalani says it took him about two years to come up with the right mix. Before Toscana Market opened, he would use his Cucina Al Volo stall inside the Union Market food hall to conduct early-morning experiments with vats of oil between 3 a.m. and 8 a.m. Once he moved into the Toscana space, commercial fryers with thermostats helped him nail down consistency.
When Catalani opened Toscana Market the day after Thanksgiving last year, he began selling the bomboloni as a weekend brunch special, offering plain versions and others stuffed with Nutella, pistachio spread, or vanilla pastry cream. Catalani says the winter months after the holidays are always the slowest time of the year, so he was preparing himself not to be discouraged if the bomboloni didn’t sell as well as he hoped. Instead, he’s already had to double doughnut production. He’s adding a bomboloni display case to show off 20 flavors at a time as he chases whims, trying out birthday cake bomboloni, s’mores bomboloni, maple-bacon bomboloni, and smoked salmon bomboloni with everything spice cream cheese and caper.
“I didn’t expect this response, to be honest with you,” Catalani says.
Doughnuts were always in the business plan at Call Your Mother, the “Jew-ish” deli that has grown to five D.C.-area locations in just over two years, but the demand for its marquee wood-fired bagels was so intense that chef Daniela Moreira didn’t have time to research and develop them.
“There was no way,” Moreira says. “Bagels [are] so crazy. It’s so hard. Dealing with dough, it’s a nightmare.”
Then Call Your Mother hired pastry chef Sharrod Mangum, whom Moreira says “has been incredible, like a gift from the sky.” Mangum, 28, landed an externship with Call Your Mother in 2018 while he was studying at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio. But he says he couldn’t leave home at the time, so he let the opportunity pass. He followed up with an email a couple years later, when he was ready to relocate. Moreira hadn’t forgotten him.
Mangum’s final project in culinary school was to create a doughnut shop, so he took the lead on developing a yeasty dough for Call Your Mother that gets its chew from three types of flour. Mangum came aboard in September, and by December, Call Your Mother released its first doughnut, with sugar coating and a raspberry-guava jam filling that mixed Moreira’s South American sensibilities with the traditional sufganiyot served during Hanukkah. For New Year’s Eve, Mangum made doughnuts with Champagne cream and introduced ring-shaped creations with crunchy pearls.
In January, Call Your Mother made doughnuts a part of its regular menu from Thursday through Sunday. The two first flavors were black-and-white, with chocolate and vanilla glazes meeting at the midway point of each ring, and a caramel-drizzled, coconut-covered doughnut modeled after a Girl Scout cookie.
“I don’t want to brag, but it’s been a really fun process,” Moreira says of working with Mangum. “Every day he has, like, six different types of doughnuts [to test].”
Magnum works overnight to prep the dough, letting it proof for 30 to 45 minutes before frying off 400 doughnuts to supply each day’s run. Moreira says they consistently sell out.
“Dani warned me for this: ‘Okay, you’re going to work a lot,’” Mangum says. “It’s been a lot of learning and a ton of growth in such a short period of time.”
Rose Nguyen can relate. Nguyen opened Rose Ave Bakery a few days before D.C. declared a state of emergency in March 2020. After providing food to frontline workers, she reopened in late April as the lone baker working in the Block’s latest Asian food hall, in downtown D.C. She scrambled to fulfill preorders of pastries that find inventive uses for Vietnamese, Japanese, Filipino, and Chinese ingredients, all mixed up with American food trends. That includes savory morning buns with Sichuan pepper lining the walls of each swirl and a cacio e pepe crust baked onto the top.
Nguyen makes doughnuts from a brioche dough that folds in roasted sweet potato puree to add more moisture and a caramelized sweetness. They come filled with passionfruit curd — too popular to take off the menu — and other rotating flavors like pandan coconut cream, Thai tea, or Vietnamese coffee. She has a mochi cruller made out of the glutinous rice paste that produces an extra-chewy texture that’s prized in East Asian cultures. She feels the quintessential Rose Ave doughnut is one with strawberry slices and lychee fruit on top of a rose-flavored cream, because it walks a tightrope between sweet, tart, and silky.
Demand for Rose Ave continues to build. On Thursdays, typically the one day a week Nguyen always allows walk-ins, a socially distanced line of customers will start building ahead of 10 a.m. Nguyen brought on a sous chef, then a cashier. Now her staff is up to 12 people. She’s seen firsthand how a bite of her pastries can spark a moment of joy during an incredibly taxing year. She’s happy to provide it at $4.25 a doughnut.
“It’s gloomy right now, so anything that brings a little brightness to our day, let’s do it,” Nguyen says.
Punching holes in her dough is the next step for Nguyen, she says, because “no one will say no to a ring doughnut.” While some of the other doughnut makers around town are concerned with creating doughnuts that nearly defy gravity, Nguyen says she doesn’t like hers too light. Using just King Arthur bread flour suits her fine. “I live in the middle,” she says. “I like the middle of everything. I want that bite.”
If Nguyen lives in the middle, Paola Velez wants to go big — giant, even. Velez, the James Beard award nominee, co-founder of Bakers Against Racism, and executive pastry chef behind La Bodega bakery, says she knows as soon as some customers, used to $1 doughnuts at Dunkin, see a price tag over $4, they’re going to balk. With La Bodega’s “doughnut of the week,” Velez wants to eliminate any doubt in a customer’s mind that they might not be getting their money’s worth.
“I like rewarding people,” she says. “I don’t want them to think, ‘Where is the doughnut?’ I want them to think, ‘Damn, this is thing is hefty!’”
And hefty it is. Unboxing a recent pickup from La Bodega revealed a deep purple doughnut that takes its color from ube — an on-trend yam popular in Filipino cooking — and boasts a height and weight that are on par with a cheeseburger. Although the brioche-based dough was still squishy and soft, with visible air pockets, the density approached bagel proportions, and a distinct crust supplied a wisp of crunch. These are not doughnuts to buy by the dozen.
“If you’re into that light, fluffy, it-collapses-when-you-touch-it doughnut, I applaud you. I’ll have one of my doughnuts,” Velez says. “I think it’s all about what you want personally to eat as a chef, translating that to a consumer.”
A few techniques set Velez’s doughnut process apart. When she has sourdough starter on hand, she likes to incorporate it into her dough for tang and acidity. She says seasoning pastry dough is as important as adding spices to a fried chicken dredge. As the executive pastry chef at Compass Rose, with its globetrotting theme, and the Middle Eastern kitchen at Maydan, Velez has emptied the spice cabinet into doughnuts at La Bodega, mixing toasted sumac with lemon cream over the summer, for example.
“A lot of people miss the opportunity to actually flavor their dough,” Velez says.
Doughnut flavors at La Bodega change from week to week. Velez’s goal is to explore a range of cuisines based on her memories of eating around New York City as a child of the Bronx, which gives her and her crew a lot of freedom. While ube doughnuts with coconut cream nod to pastry chef Nikkie Rodriguez’s Filipino heritage, Velez can reference her Dominican roots with dulce de leche filling inside a strawberry glazed doughnut. That doughnut, a Valentine’s Day special, had a couple more maximalist garnishes: flakes of gold leaf and a whole strawberry on top.
The doughnuts, available among items like bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches, dulce de leche or pandan babka, and plantain sticky buns, sell out in limited quantities.
Although there’s a lot more competition in the local doughnut business than there was a year ago, Velez says there’s room for everyone. She was happy to dispense doughnut advice over the phone when a young chef recently reached out to talk about running their own rotating specials. She’s a huge fan of Rose Ave Bakery herself, and has already braved the line at Donut Run.
“A lot of the old guard of the industry was so scared to be in the same space as each other,” she says, “but as the pandemic rolls through, there’s no shadow of a doubt in my mind that if we don’t support each other and band together to make sure that we survive, than what is the point?”
Donut Run, 6904 Fourth Street NW; walk-ins accepted everyday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Toscana Market, 414 K Street NW; bomboloni available for walk-ins on weekends starting at 11 a.m.
Call Your Mother, multiple locations; preorder online for same-day or next-day pickups from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Rose Ave Bakery, 1110 Vermont Avenue NW; walk-ins only on Thursday (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.); preorder for pickup Friday and Saturday (11 a.m. to 2 p.m.); preorders go live Sunday at 5 p.m.
La Bodega Bakery (inside Compass Rose), 1346 T Street NW; preorder for weekend pickups on Tock
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