To see the eateries where Chinese takeout and donuts meet, click here for a slide show.
Given California's storied history of pairing unusual ingredients with winning results—from its namesake California roll to Wolfgang Puck's smoked salmon pizza to the Korean short rib taco—perhaps it should have come as no surprise several years ago when, on a trip to LA, I spotted a sign above a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant advertising Chinese food and donuts.
The combination was unusual enough that it briefly caught my eye, but I was in "La-La Land," after all, so I expected oddities. Distracted by the blazing sun and those sultry palm trees, I soon forgot the puzzling sight—until the next day, when I noticed another purveyor of Chinese food and donuts while driving through Hollywood. And then another. What was going on here? I peered in to investigate. On one side was a steam table of Chinese fast food staples—sesame chicken, lo mein, pork fried rice. On the opposite end, a glass counter displayed a rainbow of donuts, but these were not you tiao (Hong Kong's long crispy crullers) or another version of Chinese-style fried dough. No, they were standard-variety glazed, plain cake, and sprinkle-laden wheels of the sort you'd see in any coffee shop.
When I returned home to New York, I asked a few West Coast-bred friends for clues to the great Case of the Chinese Food and Donuts, but the mystery remained unsolved and eventually grew dormant in my list of culinary questions. That is, until last year, when I moved to the Bay Area and again encountered small restaurants dishing up Chinese and donuts under one roof. I needed to solve this quandary once and for all, and a recent drive to Southern California offered an opportunity to try to understand the origins of what seemed a statewide phenomenon.
Like any good investigator, I searched for patterns, and a few quickly emerged. The establishments tended to be in working-class neighborhoods. As I'd noted at that first sighting in LA, most of the restaurants kept the Chinese food and the donuts in separate counters, and while I occasionally spotted someone with both a chocolate-glazed orb and a plate of Kung Pao on his table, patrons tended to stick to sweet or savory. According to the folks behind the counters, hot food was prepared on site, while pastries were brought in each morning from centralized bakeries. A few outliers had expanded their offerings, serving up tacos or ice cream as well.
When asked why they'd chosen to pair the two foodstuffs, proprietors generally responded with quizzical expressions—the combination was apparently so common in these parts that it was a given. However, although the decision to marry Chinese food and donuts came easily, the initial impulse to sell two products was born of need.
Henry Trang, the owner of Mom's Donuts and Chinese Food to Go, a tiny hut-shaped restaurant in LA's Silverlake neighborhood, told me that when he took over the shop in 1995 it was known as California Donuts, and he focused only on the sweet stuff. Recently, though, "a lot of donut places have been closing," he explained while cleaning up for the night. Not wanting to see his business suffer a similar fate, he expanded his offerings. "We have to make both. If I don't have food, maybe I don't survive."