By Mark Petruska
On SW 3rd Avenue, in the heart of Old Town, people line up at all hours to gain entrance into the hallowed and cramped lobby of a doughnut shop. While its proprietors proudly declare, “the magic is in the hole,” the only real sleight of hand going on is the cash leaving your wallet and entering their till. Not an insignificant amount, either, for the doughnuts are pricey. Then again, the flocks of folks queuing up in all kinds of weather for a wait that can take over an hour aren’t really here for the doughnuts. It’s all about the communal experience.
It may sound like I’m not a fan of Voodoo Doughnut, but that’s not true. In fact, I am one of their biggest proponents. Voodoo so perfectly conjures up the spirit of Portland: funky, independent, a little bizarre. It attracts people from all walks of life: hipsters, tourists, families, college students, businessmen, Goths. They come here because the television told them to; Voodoo has been featured on countless broadcasts including The Tonight Show, Good Morning America, ESPN, and various specials on The Travel Channel and The Food Network. It has become a must-see spot thanks to its colorful proprietors, Cat Daddy (an ordained minister) and Tres, who hold onsite weddings, and a variety of creative doughnuts. Voodoo gets off on topping their doughnuts with outlandish confections – Captain Crunch, Fruit Loops, Coco Puffs, grape dust, Tang, Oreos (and once, until the FDA stepped in, Nyquil) – and meat. They cater to Elvis aficionados with the Memphis Mafia, to bachelorettes with the Cock-N-Balls, to potheads with the Maple Blazer Blunt, and to gays with the rainbow-colored Gay Bar. There is no doubt Voodoo is fun. The entertainment factor? Through the roof. The minute you (finally) step through the doors you are greeted with pink walls, tribal masks, loud music and a “Wall of Death” papered with celebrity obituaries.
But what about the doughnuts? Some might argue there’s no such thing as a bad doughnut, and while that may be true to an extent, there are varying degrees of deliciousness. Aside from Voodoo’s signature bacon maple bar – a sweet and savory concoction whose flavors perfectly balance each other, the crispness of the bacon adding harmonious contrast to the soft chewiness of the dough – their offerings tend to be mediocre. The Portland Crème, the city’s “official doughnut”? Nothing special or particularly forward thinking; it’s just your basic chocolate-covered, Bavarian cream-filled treat. The cereal atop the Captain My Captain and others tends to the stale side, and while the Voodoo Doll, with its pretzel stake through the heart and raspberry “blood” is fun to look at and poke, it’s really nothing special.
By all means, go to Voodoo Doughnut. Submerse yourself in the experience and you’ll have a great time and an okay doughnut or three.
Meanwhile, across the river in the humble northeast section of town is Tonalli’s Donuts & Cream, a hole in the wall joint smack dab in the middle of the colorful and jazzy Alberta Arts District. This unassuming shop may have zero name recognition, but it makes up for that with great doughnuts, friendly service, and prices that won’t stretch your wallet.
On a recent rainy Saturday morning, I pulled up to the curb right in front of the store and parked my car three steps from the front door – for free. I marveled at the fact that there weren’t two hundred people lined up halfway around the block, inching their way forward. Upon entering, I was greeted with a cheerful smile by one of the employees, who struck up a friendly conversation and eagerly pointed out their newest creation, a blueberry cake doughnut. The walls weren’t pink, Metallica was not blaring from the loudspeakers, and there was nary an overpriced t-shirt or sticker for sale. What I saw, instead, were doughnuts – and plenty of them, all neatly organized and showcased behind a glass counter. All the usual suspects were on hand: old-fashioned, glazed, raised, maple bars (sans the bacon), chocolate covered, etc. And oh, were they good! Perfectly crisp on the outside, moist and slightly chewy on the inside, Tonalli’s doughnuts are fried to perfection. They’re light and springy – not at all dense or saturated with grease. These guys might not be able to have you exchange “I do’s”, but they’ve perfected the art of doughnut making. The buttermilk bar is tangy and cakelike, its crunchy exterior giving way to a puffy middle. The Bavarian-filled chocolate doughnut here may not be Portland’s “official doughnut” but it’s every bit as regal as its cross-town rival. And that blueberry cake doughnut they were so proud of? It may have been the best of the bunch – a full twelve hours later.
It just goes to show that all the publicity in the world doesn’t necessarily equate to quality. While many are lured by flash over substance, those who dig a little deeper will reap the rewards. The real magic is happening at Tonalli’s.
Mark Petruska is in love and wants the world to know it. The object of his affection? The Pacific Northwest, where he has lived since 1994. Born in Hawaii, his father was in the Air Force, and the family moved often. Over the years, Mark has called many places home – Dayton, Ohio; Rapid City, South Dakota; San Jose, California – but his heart belongs to Portland.
Mark is also passionate about writing, and has cranked out a number of novels and short stories over the years. His dream is to become a published author.
“I’d love to walk into Powell’s Books someday, and pull a novel with my name on it from the shelf,” he says. “It will happen…mark my words!”
A recent corporate layoff prompted Mark to pursue his passion and begin a freelance writing career. With a steady and growing client base, he hopes to make a living solely through his writing. Hobbies include cooking, blogging, photography, hiking, and “mind-numbing reality television.”