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The Super Ultimate Best Donuts in San Diego

The results of food editor Troy Johnson’s quest for the best donuts and donut shops in the city

Donuts saved my soul.

Sunday school was kind of a drag. All due respect to Jesus, but I was six years old and preferred kickball to disciple-based coloring books. Only thing that got me up on Sundays was lingering fear of a fiery eternal resting place, and the fact that mom was in choir. Choir people always smelled like donuts—there was a constant dozen lingering around their ranks. And mom would let me come down and pilfer a rainbow sprinkle.

Another true story: When I was 14 years old, I exercised at an alarming rate. I was playing at least three hours of tennis a day, surfing in between, burning thousands of calories. That’s not the remarkable part.

The remarkable part is that I didn’t die that year. Because every morning, we’d stop at Rosie’s Donuts in Rancho Peñasquitos on the way to school. I would order a buttermilk bar, an old fashioned glaze, a rainbow sprinkle, and a half-dozen donut holes. I would eat every crumb before school started. Not an exaggeration.

Whenever I do something a tad suspect as an adult—fail at simple math, respond to a group text, expect Florida to regain its sanity—I wonder if it was the 500 milligrams of sugar coursing through my bloodstream at a critical time in my development.

Anyway, point is, over the last few years, I went out on a quest to uncover the best donuts and shops in San Diego. I’ve tried more than 30 spots, and these were the ones that won my fritter-shaped heart. For me, a great donut is about more than taste. It’s about the shop, the people, the ambience, the welcoming vibe. A special thing in a special place.

The list here includes my favorites from the epic quest. As always, the title of this article is poking fun at the very idea of “best” lists. I don’t eat with your mouth, and so I don’t purport this to be the “only list you’ll need.” It’s just mine after a really, really exhaustive search. There are very fancy donut shops in San Diego that many people love, and I tried them all. But the ones on this list struck me in all the right places. You’ll notice one place is mentioned three times. That’s intentional. Oh dear, those donuts.

Please feel free to point out my oversights, and I encourage you to make your own ultimate list. And in trying a handful of their best things, you’re supporting a lot of moms and pops who wake up in the wee hours and create a place where neighbors can huddle over a relatively inexpensive treat.

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Photo Credit: James Tran

Super Twist at Mary’s Donuts

Mary Hennesy is a local legend. Since she’s now in her 90s, her granddaughter is mostly running the shop. But you’ll still see Mary in there, finishing donuts, visiting with longtime regulars, playing host. This is the kind of place that anchors a community, especially our elders, who come to Mary for companionship. What an absolute gem—and her extra-large Super Twist with cinnamon and glazed is as good as her famed apple fritters.


Huckleberry Donut at Sidecar Donuts

Sidecar is one fancy donut shop, like a Sharper Image of fried morning treats. It’s not inexpensive, but using better, more costly ingredients to build a better donut—and charging more for the result—is a-okay in my book as long as you can taste the difference. And, at Sidecar, you absolutely can. Gotta say these are my favorite donuts in San Diego, and the staff isn’t snobby or aloof about it; they’re downright neighborly. The fruit-glazed cake donut is that generational gap-filler. A kid might not love a cruller and an adult might not jibe with rainbow sprinkle, but this huckleberry glaze is for everyone.


Earl Gray Donut at Dark Horse Coffee Roasters

Vegan donuts often taste better in your heart. They’re simply harder to make without eggs. At Dark Horse, one of the top coffee roasters in San Diego, the vegan Early Gray is a marvel. Know what that frosting tastes like? Froot Loops. For those of us who grew up coveting the sugar cereal section of the grocery store, that’s a magical flavor (recreated here without whacky commercial food ingredients).

Chocolate Glazed Donut at Rose Donuts

Much as I appreciate creativity and evolution in the donut arts, I think modern donut media goes a bit too far in writing off a simple donut simply done well. Rose Donuts has been serving the community in Linda Vista for almost 30 years. A beacon for the neighborhood. Simple, honest, iconic. Their chocolate glaze is light and fuffy, and that icing is perfect (not too oily, doesn’t slide apart, etc.).


Butter + Salt Donut at Sidecar Donuts

The name alone is three of my favorite food groups. And it’s not just any butter, but brown butter—which is one of cooking’s great magic tricks, butter warmed until the solids caramelize and release one of the greatest flavors on earth. This is a vanilla bean cake donut at Sidecar, its brown butter and sugar glaze offset with just the right amount of salt.


Ube Taro Coconut at Nomad Donuts

Nomad Donuts owner Brad Keiller is what a donut shop proprietor should be in all of our minds—a community-builder who gives a damn and helps local causes. His shop is a warm, creative place that feels like an ad hoc bread church for North Park. That’s all good and nice, but his donuts are also fantastic, especially the famed ube taro coconut. Purple and delicious.


Blueberry Donut at Broad Street Dough Co.

Broad Street launched first on the east coast, then a west coast family member opened this sister location in Encinitas. Their uniqueness is making donuts to order. You say the word, they drop the dough in the fryer and glaze them right there. Their churro bites (tossed in cinnamon and sugar, drizzled with icing) are pretty incredible, but the recipe for their blueberry donut is out of this world. Us blueberry glazed people are not many, but we are proud.

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Apple Fritter at Leucadia Donuts

Anyone who’s left classic neighborhood hangout The Leucadian Bar at or around 2 a.m. has smelled Leucadia Donut owners Tom and Emily Cheu in there baking a fresh batch—and wanted to courteously and awkwardly knock on the window. This is where surf culture stacks calories to get them through a long session at Grandview or Ponto. I politely explained that I was in media and I’d love to talk to Tom or Emily to tell their story, and was told flatly they are not interested in stories. I honestly respect the hell out of that. All about the donuts.


Strawberry-Filled Donut at The Goods

I don’t even like jelly-filled donuts. Tastes like I was trying to eat a donut and some kid stuck his sandwich in my mouth. But the strawberry-filled donut at this charming, stark-white shop called The Goods in Carlsbad converted me. Baker/owner Jacquie Barille (her family also owns Cafe Topes, where they’re known for their cinnamon rolls) make their donuts with seasonal fruits, so it comes and goes with the ripeness. Their brown butter with sea salt is also exquisite.

VG Donuts & Bakery

Apple Fritter at VG Donut

VG Donut is legend. Opened in 1969 as a tiny hole in a strip mall, campers at the San Elijo State Beach across the 101 would wake up and smell their immediate future. VG became the city’s surf donut. One before surf, one after surf, one instead of surf. Their interior decor is linoleum and wet sand. Designer donuts are going for $2.50-$4.50 now; VG’s base models go for $1.35. VG apple fritters are flat and square and thin, which increases the crispy edges (the best part of a fritter). They’re also ribbed, which creates little luges to collect the glory of the glaze.


Maple Bacon Donut at Great Maple

When this iconic Hillcrest location came open years ago, someone called Johnny Rivera about it. Johnny had Hash House and didn’t really need another restaurant at the time. But he lived in the neighborhood, and he didn’t want to see it go to a bad out-of-town chain. So the place is a local guy creating something for his neighborhood, which is easy to get behind. And the maple-bacon donut at Great Maple is the icon. He was doing it before bakers started putting bacon in everything.

Butter Log at Peterson’s Donut Corner

Peterson’s has been a San Diego institution since the Petersons bought it in 1981. Now new owner Anthony Deeb is carrying on the tradition. They’re famous for face-sized cherry fritters, a welcome riff on the classic apple. But the butter log is the dreamiest, a nine-inch yeast-raised donut that’s lathered with butter and sugar—like a lighter, fluffier cinnamon roll.


French Toast Donut at Donut Bar

Donut Bar is famed for its wild, oversized creations; its pinkness; its neon; its branding. But when I walked into his bake station, owner Santiago Campa explained the real, simple reason he’s kept the buzz for so long: he changes that oil every single day, religiously. Some honestly don’t, and you can taste the difference. The French toast donut is the knockout, a donut dipped in an egg wash and griddled, then sprinkled with sugar.


Basil Eggs Benedict Donut at Sidecar Donuts

As you can tell, I was blown away by Sidecar. There’s a reason why this small-ish chain has been so successful. This one is wild, the stuff viral TikToks are made of. A lightly sweet, malasada (Portuguese-style) donut with an entire eggs benedict inside. They poach the eggs, roll the dough around ’em, deep fry, then pipe basil hollandaise inside, along with a full basil leaf. Is it the best benedict you’ve had? No. But it’s still very good, and brings thrill to food.

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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