By Maggie Torsney-Weir, Epicure & Culture contributor
You’re driving around Los Angeles with the top down on your convertible. The Southern California sun warms your skin, a balmy breeze tousling your hair.
Suddenly, you feel the slight pang of hunger.
What do you reach for?
Sure, locals love their kale smoothies and vegan Korean tacos; but, the real soul of the city lies in LA’s love of doughnuts.
Avocado toast is all well and good, but the iconic LA doughnut shop reflects the multicultural heritage of the city and its culinary ingenuity.
With over 600 shops in Los Angeles County — and 42 in this city alone — Angelenos love a good doughnut.
And not only do these treats taste delicious, but the history of the doughnut is also fascinating.
Psst, don’t forget to pin this fascinating California travel guide for later!
Is It Doughnut Or Donut?
According to Merriam Webster, the technically proper word is “doughnut.”
“Donut” rose in popularity from the mid-20th century because spelling things phonetically can make life easier.
However you spell it, these fried — or baked — cakes are delicious.
The History Of The Doughnut In Los Angeles
The history of the LA doughnut begins the same way as doughnuts in the rest of the country.
Doughnuts evolved from the Dutch olykoeks (oily cakes), brought to the United States in the early 1800s.
Over time, genius bakers found they were easier to cook with a hole in the center, creating its distinctive shape.
Already popular by World War 1, the “doughnut dollies” cooked the delicious little tastes of home in inventive ways to bring some comfort to the soldiers far from home.
From there, Adolph Levitt developed the doughnut machine in 1920, allowing for more mass production.
Throughout the 1920s and the Great Depression, doughnuts were immensely popular.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the major doughnut franchises started opening their stores:
- Krispy Kreme in 1937 in Winston-Salem, NC
- Dunkin Donuts in 1950 in Quincy, MA
- and here in Los Angeles we have Winchell’s, opened in 1948 by Verne H. Mitchell in Temple City, CA.
The Unexpected Influence Of The Khmer Rouge On The Los Angeles Doughnut Shop
Following World War II, several mom and pop doughnut shops opened in Los Angeles that are still open today:
- Bob’s Coffee and Doughnuts
- and the iconic Randy’s Donuts, which really is one of the top attractions in Los Angeles for donut lovers
With the influx of refugees from the oppressive Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s, though, the LA doughnut scene was about to undergo a major transformation.
According to Food and Wine Magazine, one Cambodia refugee named Ted Ngoy arrived in Los Angeles in 1975 with his wife and family.
He found a job at a gas station next to a doughnut shop. Noticing how busy the doughnut shop was at all times of day, Ngoy thought it might be a good investment. From there, he actually went through the Winchell’s management program.
A born entrepreneur, his big break came through an opportunity to purchase Christy’s Donuts in La Habra, California.
He made a few key changes — including making the doughnuts fresh several times a day — and kept it a family business by hiring his own family members.
In just five short years, he had 20 Christy’s Donuts shops.What do Cambodian refugees have in common with #LosAngeles' #doughnut history? A lot. Find out more here.
Important for the history of the Los Angeles doughnut shop, Ted Ngoy sponsored hundreds of other Cambodian refugees and helped them to lease or buy their own doughnut shops.
Many of these still exist today.
The Deal With The Pink Doughnut Boxes
This can also be attributed to Mr. Ted Ngoy.
When he and his fellow refugee doughnut entrepreneurs were trying to find a more economical and culturally appealing alternative to the traditional white box, a company called Westco offered them boxes made of pink cardboard stock.
Right there, the icon was born.
Since the 1980s, the pink box of doughnuts has been featured in numerous television shows and movies, spreading the legend across the country.
Even the owner of Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland was inspired by the Los Angeles doughnut shops:
“Good things come in pink boxes” is what is written on the box of these yummy doughnuts.
Hollywood Loves Doughnuts
Hollywood loves doughnuts, and doughnuts love them, too.
After Adolph Levitt’s invention of the doughnut machine in 1920, doughnuts became a popular treat for movie theater patrons.
Popular lore maintains that silent film actress Mae Murray popularized dunking the doughnut in coffee after she accidentally “dunked” hers at a popular cafe.
That spawned the National Dunking Association in the 1930s which included several celebrities, such as Johnny Carson, Red Skelton, and Jimmy Durante.
Classic movie fans know that Clark Gable taught everyone how to dunk properly in “It Happened One Night.”
Randy’s Donuts in Inglewood has been featured in countless movies, music videos, and TV shows.
They have some of the cheapest doughnuts in town, too.
Where Can I Find The Best Doughnuts In Los Angeles?
With hundreds of delicious choices, it’s hard to go wrong.
- Donut Friend. All the doughnuts here are vegan; no need to ask. Though their most popular is Strawberry Lab, I’d get the Sufganiyot Stevens — bismark donuts filled with local jam and covered in powdered sugar — every time. You can also make your own.
- Colorado Donuts. They do have an excellent selection of both vegan and non-vegan doughnuts.
- Trejo’s Coffee and Donuts. Yup, that Danny Trejo has a delicious doughnut shop.
While Donut Friend has “gluten free-ish” doughnuts, if you truly have a gluten allergy you will be better served at Fonuts. All of their options are baked and gluten-free.What are your favorite #doughnut shops in #LosAngeles? Here are our top picks in every category, from fancy to mom & pop!
Mom and Pop
- Donut Prince in Burbank.
- DK’s Donuts in Santa Monica.
- Monarch Donuts in Arcadia. They have the best apple fritter and cinnamon crumb in town. But get there early. He opens at 4am and has sold out by 6:30am. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.
- Sidecar Doughnuts and Coffee.
- Donut Man in Glendora. A cult favorite for their seasonal strawberry or peach-filled doughnuts. Worth the drive.
Do you have anything to add to the delicious history of the doughnut in LA? Please share in the comments below!
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