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By Emily Paster
The March issue of Saveur was dedicated to exploring all things doughnut. And why not? Deep-fried dough is a food that is common to almost all cultures. Cakes fried in oil is even mentioned in the Bible as worthy of a sacred offering. In earlier times, when oil was costly, fried foods were reserved for special occasions. Now, of course, there's a doughnut shop on every corner.
Doughnuts may be ubiquitous in America, but good doughnuts are actually quite hard to find. Personally, I think most mass-produced doughnuts are a waste of calories. I hate the way that a doughnut from Dunkin' Doughnuts leaves an artificial aftertaste and a weird coating on the inside of my mouth. But a good doughnut? Those are treasures worth seeking out.
During the summer months, we don't have to look far. The homemade doughnuts at the Oak Park Farmers' Market on Saturday mornings have a national following. Families wait in line patiently to buy their choice of plain, powdered sugar or cinnamon. No fancy flavors or glazes here! Just old-fashioned cake doughnuts made by volunteers in the basement of the neighboring church. And the taste is heaven.
But the doughnuts from the Oak Park Farmers Market are a summertime phenomenon only. What is a Chicago-area doughnut-lover to do during the long, cold months of winter? In its special doughnut issue, Saveur listed several doughnut shops in Chicago that are, in the parlance of the Michelin Guides vaut-le-voyage (AKA worth the trip). One of them, the teeny tiny Doughnut Vault, around the corner from the Merchandise Mart, had been on my radar screen for month. Embarrassed that a national magazine had highlighted a Chicago food landmark before I had had a chance to try it, I decided that the time had come for me to make it to the Doughnut Vault and see what all the fuss was about.
Here's why I didn't want to go to the Doughnut Vault: by the time the Doughnut Vault opens at 8 am (9:30 on Saturdays), the line is already snaking down the street and around the corner. And there's no showing up after the morning rush. The proprietors make the doughnuts fresh every morning and when they run out — always before noon — they close. (Naturally, the Doughnut Vault has a Twitter account and it is updated throughout the morning to let their fans know as they start to sell out of each variety.) Here's why I did want to go to the Doughnut Vault: the proprietors make the doughnuts fresh every morning and they have creative flavors like chestnut-glazed, gingerbread and birthday cake.
This past week, my kids were on Spring Break, so I figured it was a good time to brave the lines at the Doughnut Vault. (Yes, technically it was also Passover, but the truth is, the kids and I don't actually observe the full eight-day prohibition on wheat and leavened foods.) Rather than fight rush-hour traffic to be there at 8 am, we decided to wait for Saturday. We timed it to arrive right at the 9:30 opening…and the line we found snaked around the corner.
Luckily, my kids decided that waiting in line for doughnuts was a fun adventure. Although most of the people in line were twenty-somethings hipsters, we were not the only family. There was a mom ahead of us with her toddler who at one point left the line so her son could use the potty seat that she had brought in her car. That seems like a lot of effort for doughnuts. Forty-five minutes, and many rounds of "20 Questions" later, we squeezed into the walk-in closet-sized Doughnut Vault. The space literally used to house a bank vault.
The first question that the friendly young man behind the counter at the Doughnut Vault will ask you is if you are ordering more than five doughnuts. This is so he knows whether to start a box or a bag. My feeling was, even though there were only three of us eating doughnuts — my husband does actually keep Passover — after waiting 45 minutes, we were going to try all the doughnuts. So we went for a box. The pressure to order quickly given the enormous line, is intense so it helps to know what you want going in.
The Doughnut Vault has a small roster of regular flavors and daily specials. The regular flavors include three kinds of glazed: vanilla, chocolate and chestnut. There are also cake doughnuts, like the Buttermilk Old-Fashioned, Birthday Cake and the very appealing Gingerbread Stack, which is three small gingerbread doughnuts coated in cinnamon sugar. Also on offer is a jelly doughnut – the jelly flavor changes frequently — and a daily special like lemon poppyseed or carrot cake.
We ended up getting a Buttermilk Old-Fashioned, all three varieties of glazed, a Gingerbread Stack and the day's special, a Double Chocolate Birthday Cake. I thought all three cake doughnuts were excellent. Zuzu had the Double Chocolate Birthday Cake and she won the prize for the best order. Holy cow, that was a good doughnut! But the Buttermilk Old-Fashioned and the Gingerbread Stack were also scrumptious — light with a cake-like crumb. I was less enamored of the glazed doughnuts — although the flavor of the chestnut glaze was delicious — but the truth is, I don't like the texture of yeasty doughnuts as much. My kids are glazed doughnuts fans and they declared the Doughnut Vault's glazed to be "the best ever."
But were the doughnuts worth a special trip downtown and a 45-minute wait? In the end, the drive and the wait were not actually the price we had to pay to get the doughnuts. The drive and the line were part of the experience. The kids and I thought the whole thing was a lark, a hilarious food adventure that resulted in a delicious box of doughnuts. I'm not sure the taste of the doughnuts alone, while excellent, is worth the effort. But taking the experience as a whole — our activity for a Saturday morning during a long Spring Break spent mostly at home — it was a lot of fun. And I am extremely excited that my kids share my belief that going someplace just to taste a special food is a worthwhile way to spend a morning.
The Doughnut Vault is located at 401 1/2 Franklin St, at the corner of Franklin and Kinzie. The store opens at 8 am during the week and 9:30 on Saturday. If you want doughnuts, best get there early! Doughnuts cost $2 or $3 a piece depending on the variety. The Doughnut Vault also sells coffee and water is available for free. Cash only.