Doughy delights

Digging into a baker’s dozen from Chico’s oldest doughnut shop

Megan Stiles shows off a box of Donut Nook treats.

Megan Stiles shows off a box of Donut Nook treats.

Photo by Ken Smith

Donut Nook
958 East Ave.
Hours: Open 24 hours (with the exception of 1 p.m.-8:30 p.m, Sunday-Tuesday)

I’ve heard it said that there is no such thing as bad pizza. After decades of vigorous testing I’ve found that hypothesis to be mostly true. Any earnest attempt to combine cheese, sauce and bread generally produces some tasty results.

The only other food for which that might be true is doughnuts. Of course, “good” is a relative term, and some doughnuts are better than others. While a glazed from a gas station might provide at least a fleeting bit of joy in a pinch (sweet, fried dough, is still sweet, fried dough), an early morning visit to a dedicated doughnut shop to pick up really good, fresh doughnuts can make the entire day brighter. Chico is home to a handful of such spots, including the Donut Nook on East Avenue.

The Donut Nook is Chico’s longest-running doughnuteer, with “Big” Joe Del Carlo frying up the first batch of doughy treats there in 1977. Big Joe passed on in 1996 and his son, Little Joe, now owns and operates the store.

This information and a good deal more was provided by Megan Stiles, who was working the counter during my most recent visit, and seemed to be happy to share her expansive knowledge about the Nook and her doughnut expertise. She helped select a balanced boxful of doughy delights, covering all the basics (cakes and raised) and some of the shop’s atypical offerings and customer favorites. During my half-hour visit, at least 10 single or small groups of customers came in, most of whom Stiles knew by name, regular order or both.

Stiles said fritters rank among the shop’s best sellers, noting they offer blueberry fritters in addition to the more common apple variety (all fritters and rolls are $1.45). They also have blueberry old-fashioned doughnuts, and the shop’s most unique offerings, the peanut butter chocolate chip squares (also $1.45)—light, doughy raised squares similar to bars, but with a gooey, creamy peanut-butter-and-chocolate-chip center. (They also have a plain chocolate chip variety without the peanut butter.)

Tempted as I was to dig in to the box post-haste, I brought the baker’s dozen into work and carved off samples of each. As I settled into my plate of mangled doughnut parts, I contemplated the physics of doughnutry. There are many factors and formulas involved, such as circumference of the hole in relation to the whole, but in my opinion it all comes down to density.

Different doughnut types require different densities, and proper densities are the best indicator of doughnut quality. The Donut Nook nailed ’em all. The fritters were crispy on the outside (especially in the nooks and crannies) and perfectly doughy in the middle, while the raised bars were light and airy on the inside. The cake doughnuts are naturally more dense than the raised, with the old fashioned having their own even heavier density balanced by crispy ridges. The blueberry offerings were indeed a unique treat, while the Nook’s chocolate, maple and other icings were of the solid and sugary variety rather than the straight cake frosting unceremoniously slathered all over many a lesser doughnut.

I saved the peanut-butter-chocolate-chip square for last, and was glad I did. The second my tongue met peanut butter I thought, Why, oh why, is this not a common thing? Bacon on maple bars has become a fad in recent years, but how has modern civilization survived this long without slathering peanut butter on all of our doughnuts? It’s divine.

All told, my trip to the Donut Nook did indeed brighten my day, and got me some points around the office. Stiles and some other regulars imparted some other expert advice for my next visit. The Donut Nook is open all night, every night. Wednesday through Saturday, it’s open 24 hours, and Sunday-Tuesday, it’s only closed between 1 and 8:30 p.m. As one of the few places to congregate and grab a bite late at night in that part of town, the Donut Nook is often hopping in the early morning when fresh selections are coming out of the friers.