Ode to the L.A. doughnut

I’m familiar with all the usual complaints: It has no center. It’s artificial. It’s bad for your health. It can be stale, or rough around the edges, or too sprawling. It epitomizes the excess and emptiness of American culture.

Still, I will defend the doughnut. Even better: I will celebrate the L.A. donut. (I will not, however, defend its spelling.)

There are at least 842 doughnut shops (you can count them here) in L.A. County, not including Long Beach and Vernon. As part of the rigorous research that is the hallmark of this column, I have visited at least half a dozen of these establishments, and I can say with confidence that the scope and breadth of L.A.'s doughnut sector is unrivaled. Forget show business, aerospace or parking lots. The doughnut is L.A.'s defining industry.

The industry seems to be well aware of its exalted place in the local economy. There are 10 Royal Donuts (including one Royal Chinese Food and Donut and one Royal Donut and Vietnamese Restaurant), 15 Donut Kings, 5 King Donuts (plus one Honey King Donuts), 2 Donut Queens, one Queen’s Donut and 2 Donut Princes. There are Happy Donuts (five), Super Donuts (six), Top Donuts (seven) Best Donuts (five, plus a Best World Donuts and a Best & Fresh Donuts), Perfect Donuts (seven) and Sexy Donuts (one). And then there is, of course, the Jelly Donut (three). There is no Plain Donut.

Why so many doughnuts? And why so few doughnut chains?

The second question first. The doughnut chain of my youth now spans the globe, with restaurants (if I may be so bold as to call them that) from Bulgaria to Qatar. Yet it has no presence in the city of Los Angeles or the state of California.

According to the company’s spokesman, it has “no specific expansion plans for Los Angeles to announce at this time.” L.A. has its own indigenous chain -- actually two -- yet they make up barely 10% of the local doughnut industry. In doughnuts as in politics, and even in doughnut politics, the real action is at the grass roots. Or at the fryer, as the case may be.

Many of L.A.'s doughnut shops are run by Asians, and a lot of them are Cambodian. “And a lot of the Cambodians don’t even care for doughnuts,” says Eugene Turner, a professor of geography at Cal State Northridge and co-author of The Ethnic Quilt, a book about population diversity in Southern California. Professor Turner posits that, sometime in the late 1970s, a Cambodian opened a doughnut shop in La Habra -- we’ll call him Baker Zero -- and Cambodians have been making the doughnuts ever since, passing on their expertise to new immigrants. Such ethnic business niches aren’t uncommon, he says.

Some of the only-in-L.A. places are justly famous, such as Stan’s in Westwood or Donut Man in Glendora. (I like Stan’s, but Donut Man’s have so much fruit they almost seem ... healthy.) Primo Donuts live up to their name. California Donuts on 3rd at New Hampshire is a kind of 24-hour doughnut ATM, dispensing them from a walkup window.

But one of my favorite places is Michelle’s, on Santa Monica at Edgemont in Hollywood, which embodies everything that is right with L.A.'s donut world (not to be confused with the capitalized Donut World about five miles south. Nor with the two other Michelle’s Donuts.) There are the doughnuts themselves, of course, though I prefer the pound cake. There is the help, unfailingly polite and cheerful, and generous with the free samples.

The best part, however, is the sign out front. This place used to be a Winchell’s, but when Michelle took it over, she just turned the ‘W’ upside down and cobbled together an extra ‘e’ from spare ‘n’ parts and -- presto! -- Michelle’s Donuts was born.

How can the big boys compete against ingenuity like that?

Michael Newman is the deputy editorial page editor.