While procrastinating a paper a couple of weeks ago, I somehow came across the knowledge that The Daily Meal awarded Chicago’s very own Doughnut Vault with the award of Best Donut in America. Just a little bummed out that I don’t have the means to line up early for Dominique Ansel’s celebrated Cronut in New York City, I immediately decided I must visit Doughnut Vault during finals week. Something about the idea of “Best Donut in America” was undeniably attractive despite the reality of having to wake up at 6 a.m. to get there for the opening doughnut rush.
I was lucky enough to have a sorority sister who was just as interested in getting doughnuts from Doughnut Vault as I was. I would have gone alone if I had to, but everything is a hundred times more fun when you bring a friend.
We hopped on the Purple Express train from Evanston around 7 a.m. and made it to the Merchandise Mart stop by 7:45. Following a hilarious stint where we got lost in Merchandise Mart (the actual mart!), we finally made it out on the streets and still proceeded to walk right past Doughnut Vault. It really is a hole-in-the-wall, as the Yelp reviews say.
Once we actually found it, we found that we only had a couple of minutes to wait before it opened. There were maybe four or five people in line in front of us, so it was both reassuring in that there was in fact a line (and it must be that good), and a relief that the line wasn’t longer. We had our doughnut order picked out by the time we left Evanston.
The guy behind the counter worked so quickly that I didn’t even have enough time to get a good photo inside the tiny doughnut shop. Mary and I ordered the same thing: the plain glazed original doughnut, the special of the day (which was a salted caramel doughnut) and a $1 coffee to give us stamina for the train ride back.
We ended up hauling our treats back to the Merchandise Mart to eat in warmth. The lighting inside wasn’t great for the photos, but that all of a sudden didn’t matter at all in my life when I took my first bite of the plain glazed doughnut. I knew going into it that it had all the hype of being the best doughnut in the United States, but if you ask me, it held up pretty well to that standard. Sweet and crunchy on the outside, the doughnut melted as soon as it entered my mouth. I really tried to savor every bite, but I ended up eating it really fast.
I saved the salted caramel one to eat second, predicting that I’d like that even better. While it was also an amazing doughnut, I almost think I preferred the original doughnut. That was quite surprising to me. And sad, because it means I’ll have to wake up early and make the trek back to Chicago anytime I want more of this doughnut-shaped magic.
But I guess that’s a trek I’m willing to make again. I love doughnuts, especially the ones served up at Doughnut Vault, but I almost think the experience was made all the better by how excited Mary and I were to get these doughnuts.
Some people say doughnuts are the new cupcakes. They are the hottest fad food right now, inspiring pastry chefs across the country to become more innovative with the classic dough, creating such hybrids as the Cronut (or variations on the trademarked name) and filling or glazing their doughnuts with exotic, high-quality ingredients to create artisanal desserts.
This has resulted in doughnuts becoming a fad food, the celebrated bakeries reveling in so much hype that they attract lines of people up to hours before opening – I read a New York Times article not long ago mentioning a line for Dominique Ansel’s Bakery beginning as early as 2 a.m. And I can’t believe Cronuts are that undeniably life-changing that people feel they make the pilgrimage for the cronut alone. It’s all about the social aspect, really.
Friends tell friends about food they need to try, so you already have that peer approval aspect. There’s also somewhat of a status appeal to the whole thing because you can go try the Cronut (or whatever fad food is in) and be the person to brag up your foodie adventures. (Heck, I like to do that. So what if I’m guilty?)
With all these expectations surrounding the event of actually eating the doughnut, plus the line you often have to wait in and the scarcity embraced by the bakers who make a fixed amount each day, you would think the doughnut would fall short of expectations pretty easily. But the doughnut HAS to be somewhat decent to garner such a following. Like, it has to be good, right? Right. So even a mediocre pastry could be elevated to stardom by the hype and good feelings surrounding it.
I don’t know how much my mind played a role in my enjoyment of what I ate from Doughnut Vault, but all I know is, darn, I want more of those doughnuts.
Learn how to make your own doughnuts here!