Shipley Do-Nuts, Houston, TX
The platonic ideal of a doughnut may be served at the original location of Shipley Do-Nuts, where they fry your doughnuts to order. (That really may be the defining characteristic of truly great doughnut shops.) Buy an extra dozen, because the first dozen won’t make it to their intended location intact. Also, resist the urge to eat them immediately or you might be dealing with some serious tongue burns. Shipley’s has more than 220 locations serving reliably good yeast doughnuts, but if you want to be guaranteed life-changing, fried-to-order doughnuts, go to the Shipley’s on 3410 Ella Boulevard in Houston.
Paula's Doughnuts, Buffalo, NY
There's nothing too thought-out or elevated about any of these doughnuts: they're just excellent examples of a totally classic form. And if one small doughnut isn't enough? You can call ahead for one of their Texas Doughnuts—oversized numbers nearly the size of a steering wheel. We'd take that over a birthday cake in a second.
Leonard's Bakery, Honolulu, HI
Leonard's makes a wide variety of baked goods, but masaladas are the main thing—they even sell malasada-shaped plush toys. They make unfilled malasadas for 70¢ each topped with white sugar, cinnamon, or li hing (salty dried plum) sugar, and filled malasadas for $1 each with custard, dobash (chocolate), haupia (coconut), or the Flavor of the Month. The fried-to-order malasadas are hot, soft, light, slightly chewy balls of sugar-dusted joy. Freshly fried is the key to deliciousness—we wish more bakeries did that.
Banbury Cross, Salt Lake City, UT
We're very fond of the ethereally light and thin-skinned classic doughnuts from this Salt Lake City shop, with a line of cars snaking around it every morning to pick up breakfast from the drive-through. They're all tasty, but we're partial to the cinnamon doughnut, covered in a cinnamon-sugar blend that's much heavier on the former than the latter.
Banbury Cross: 705 S 700 E, Salt Lake City UT 84102 (map); 801-537-1433
Gourdough's, Austin, TX
Gourdough's shiny airstream trailer is parked in a street food lot near a few other carts, frying doughnuts to order. The deep-fried tires are big—about a six-inch radius!—so it's a fork-and-knife job, though most of the late-nighters on the benches out front (they close around 3 a.m. on weekends) probably just inhale them. The centers are white, fluffy, and yeasty; the outsides perfectly crisp. They do all sorts of "crazy" toppings with fruits, nuts, and even fried chicken (called the "Mother Clucker"). The "Funky Monkey" is iced with cream cheese and topped with grilled bananas and brown sugar. We liked the unfussy-ness of the Naughty & Nice: as perfect as fried dough gets, with a simple dusting of cinnamon and sugar.
Old Fashioned Donut Shop, Chicago, IL
The Old Fashioned Donut Shop in Chicago is just that—a bakery lost in a time warp, where you can watch the doughnuts being made in windows right in front of the store as you walk in. You will be confronted by trays of donuts in the display case, and you might consider getting a dozen assorted—but you’d be mistaken in doing so. What you want is just one apple fritter, which will easily feed four doughnut-crazed eaters. The thing is enormous—almost the size of your head—and not exactly light fare. But it’s astoundingly tasty, a little greasy, a lot cinnamon-y, with big chunks of apple all encased by an appropriately sweet glaze. If all this sounds like it's too much for you, the glazed doughnuts are almost as good.
Old Fashioned Donut Shop: 11248 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60628 (map); 773-995-7420
Spalding Bakery, Lexington, KY
By 7am a line is serpentined inside and trailing out the door; a testament to the goods behind the counter. Doughnuts don't come more old-fashioned than these. They may be the best homemade doughnuts that money can buy. Fresh from the fryer, when traces of hot oil are still trapped in the warm dough and the glaze hasn't quite had time to set, Spalding's doughnuts are transcendental. It's the developed yeasty flavor of the dough, with just a hint of vanilla, that sets them apart. On their glazed variety, a thin veil of not-too-sweet glaze coats the risen dough and crackles and fractures with each bite. There is no cookie cutter form to this fried dough, but it's the cosmetic imperfections that are the mark of an artisan doughnut.
Sublime Doughnuts, Atlanta, GA
Of all the noteworthy flavors at this Atlanta doughnut shop, we have to talk about the strawberries and cream; how many doughnuts actually taste like fruit? Here, it's a traditional doughnut stuffed with light, tangy vanilla cream cheese and thinly sliced fresh strawberries: like a strawberry shortcake with the shortcake swapped out for a fluffy doughnut, or a strawberry cheesecake with a doughnut instead of a crust. Whatever you call it, it's delicious.
Primo's Donuts, West Los Angeles, CA
The problem with this West L.A. favorite is that it excels in almost all categories. Best Buttermilk Bar for its buttery, tender crumb. Best Crumb Doughnut for its rendition that achieves the near impossible: the perfect ratio of cake to topping with a moist dusting of crumbs you would actually want to eat on their own. Best Chocolate Frosted for cocoa icing thicker and tastier than most puddings. Best Glazed for, well, we could go on for a while. Instead we'll award them best of the best and leave you with the advice to get there early. They close at 4 p.m. on weekdays and though they make a second batch of doughnuts at 10 each morning, by noon it can be slim pickings.
Coffee An' Donut Shop, Westport, CT
The folks at Westport, Connecticut's Coffee An' Donut Shop know a little something about spectacular, crispy on the outside yet pillowy on the inside cake doughnuts. And the springy, sugary glazed variety. And the twist. Oh, that twist.
Coffee An' Donut Shop: 343 Main St, Westport CT 06880 (map); 203-227-3808
Betty Ann Food Shop, Boston, MA
It's a beautiful thing to watch Bill Scantlebury, as he creates doughnuts every day from a family recipe that his grandfather learned to make in Cornwall, England—the yeasted dough rises twice (once overnight, and then again in the coal-fired oven right before frying); after they're golden brown and crisp, they're rolled in granulated sugar. They taste faintly of nutmeg and citrus, and appear in cake rings, crullers, yeasted rings, and doughnuts filled with either raspberry jelly or lemon.
Betty Ann Food Shop: 565 Bennington Street, Boston MA 02128 (map); 617-567-1479
Doughnut Hut, Burbank, CA
One of the greatest doughnut mysteries in LA may be how these impossibly soft, delicate yeast pastries can hold up to the generous filling of sugary frosting that bursts out of them in a perfect, swirling puff. But with that sumptuous dough surrounding a mound of birthday cake icing, we're happy to continue investigating the case.
Doughnut Hut: 2025 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank CA 91506 (map);
Moody's Donuts, Portland, OR
Doughnuts are made fresh to order, dipped in glaze or sugar, and placed in a bag to-go or in a little plastic basket for eating in the Rocking Frog garden. Moody's goes for simplicity (no bacon-maple, no crazy-ass cereal toppings), and it pays off. The crisp surface with the hot, moist, cakey interior; the gooey glaze; the hot, sandy sugar; and the fact that they're not super greasy—they'll have you hooked.
Moody's Donuts:2511 SE Belmont Street, Portland OR 97214 (at 25th Avenue; map)
Dynamo Donuts and Coffee, San Francisco, CA
The best way to appreciate Dynamo: get there early, before they run out; order a big variety, so as to really appreciate what Dynamo can do; and head to their back patio to enjoy what they give you. They come up with bizarre doughnut ideas, but execute them so well, from a lemon-Sichuan pepper to a spicy chocolate to the rare bacon doughnut that's really done well.
Doughnut Plant, New York, NY
No matter how many times the Doughnut Plant is written about, no matter how many other high-quality, wacky fried dough creations we see, we're still huge fans of what we'd consider the first truly boundary-pushing doughnut shop out there. Years after its opening, the crackly sugar-crusted creme brulee doughnut, masterfully layered tres leches, and coconut cream are as good as ever. It's become trite to say so, but we don't care; Doughnut Plant, you're still awesome.
Kane's Donuts, Saugus, MA
The racks behind the counter at Kane's display an impressive array of substantial cake doughnuts, jelly- and cream-filled, powdered, and risen varieties. Of note are the "Sugar Raised", which are akin to a glazed yeast doughnut, but coated with superfine sugar, yielding a crystalline crunch; and the apricot jelly doughnut, powdered on the outside and with a dollop of apricot on the inside and out. Though airy and light, the risen dough at Kane's has more egg, giving it an almost bread-y quality, like a Christmas Panettone. It manages to be sweet, but not overly so. Their sizable cake donuts sport a good exterior crunch and tender insides. In Dunkin' Donuts country, Kane's is a beacon for those in search of what commercial doughnuts strive to be.
Morning Call, Metairie, LA and Cafe du Monde, New Orleans, LA
Down in the French Quarter, Cafe du Monde gets the beignet tourists—and there are any number of reasons to head down there, from the huge enclosed patio to the unparalleled people-watching. The beignets are seconds old when they hit your table, finger-burning hot, with crisp shells and soft, doughy interiors; they're best washed down with a chicory-laced cafe au lait.
Bite for bite, though, we're just as happy with the crispy little fritters from Morning Call Coffee Stand in suburban Metairie. And with old wooden stools and white-hatted waitresses, the place isn't lacking in atmosphere, either.
Daily Dozen Doughnut Company, Seattle, WA
There's something amazing about doughnuts straight out of the fryer, plucked from the conveyor belt and tossed in sugar before they've even really drained. At Daily Dozen Doughnut Company in Seattle's Pike Place Market, they're so fresh that steam pours out when you take a bite.
Daily Dozen Doughnut Company:93 Pike Street at Pike Place Market, Seattle WA 98101 (map); 206-467-7769
Peter Pan Bakery, Brooklyn, NY
Peter Pan Bakery's Honey-Glazed Doughnut is an unfussy yeast doughnut, with a tender and featherlike crumb, gently fried and minimally sweetened with a light honey glaze. Nourishing in ways that only sweet fried dough could be, this doughnut holds nary a surprise—and only satisfaction. There's a lot to love at this bakery, but a pefect glazed doughnut is a rare thing indeed, and one worth celebrating.
Peter Pan Bakery: 727 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11211 (map); 718-389-3676