Chinese and Doughnuts: A California Mystery

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Katie Robbins

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.

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Katie Robbins

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."

Back in San Francisco, Jolly Chan, the owner of the Mission District's popular Donuts and Chinese Food, echoed this sentiment. "The rent is too high," he told me, watching as customers queued for heaping plates of orange chicken and pot stickers. "It cannot be empty in the morning," he said. "I have donuts and coffee for morning customers and around 10 or 11 start working in food."

So why Chinese food and donuts? Chan had some answers, and it seemed that for many owners of such establishments, donuts came first. When he first emigrated from Cambodia in 1980, Chan, like many Cambodian immigrants, found a job in a donut shop. It was a trend begun by Ted Ngoy, who immigrated in 1975 and after learning the donut trade opened his own chain of shops. Ngoy went on to train the wave of Cambodian immigrants that followed. By the mid-'90s, 80 percent of California's donut shops were Cambodian owned and operated. Chan says that when donuts stopped being sufficient to keep businesses running, many immigrants added Chinese food to their repertoires.

While the Cambodian ownership of donut shops is well documented, the inclusion of Chinese food in the mix is more anecdotal, according to Paul Mullins, author of Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut. "I am not certain when donut retailers in California turned to the mix of Chinese-style foods and doughnuts," he wrote to me in an email. "But for most of these Cambodians, doughnuts were simply a cost-effective enterprise since start-up on doughnut shops is cheap. I would not be surprised to find out that hawking passable Chinese food is also relatively inexpensive given how many wholesalers offer Chinese foods."

Nimor Sam, a San Diego-based restaurateur who started in the donut business the day he arrived in California, confirms the benefits of inexpensive fast-food Chinese. After learning "everything about donuts" while working at the popular Winchell's chain, he decided to open his own business and soon added hot food to his menu. "[This kind] of Chinese food is so simple," he explained. "You can buy the sauce all ready to go."

Despite the simplicity of the two types of food, after six years, Sam grew dissatisfied. Business had slowed down, and he started losing money. So Sam changed his business model entirely and invented what is perhaps the next wave in California's fusion cuisine. Last year, he reopened his shop as Cambodian, Thai and Laos Cuisine and Donuts. With a menu that features a variety of Khmer and Thai curries, salads, and noodle dishes, his business is doing well. "This is completely different, home-style cuisine," Sam said. "It's what I enjoy. Cambodian food. A lot of customers love it."

And although Sam is very proud of his new Southeast Asian menu, he has no plans to lose the sweet stuff. "The restaurant and donut combination," he said. "It's very good."