It’s 4:30 a.m., when most people are asleep. But, for Jay Medford, it’s time to make the doughnuts.
Medford, a classically trained chef, owns and operates the Underground Cafe with DoughP Doughnuts in the lower floor of the Jackson Building.
He opened up shop quietly in November, but it’s been hard not to notice the fascinating and frankly lovely doughnuts coming out of his kitchen ever since.
Medford’s rotating cast of flavors can trend downright funky: you may find in the case a salty-sweet preserved lemon-glazed doughnut, a raspberry chipotle doughnut or a fermented apple doughnut.
The latter comes with a glazed infused with fermented cinnamon apples from Fermenti Foods, a Madison County-based purveyor of pickles and other probiotic-rich fare.
Medford applies negligible heat while making his glazes, so these doughnuts boast probiotics, though no one’s trying to pass them off as healthy. But the interplay of the slightly tart fermented apple and sweet glaze creates a next-level cider apple with extra punch.
Medford’s Southern background is evident in a dill pickle-glazed doughnut, which he said tastes like sweet pickles on a dinner roll. There’s even a pork belly-glazed doughnut, sprinkled with pork rind sugar.
It’s all served on not-too-sweet, improbably fluffy yeast-risen doughnuts, like a better, souped-up version of a Krispy Kreme.
Traditionalists, it should be noted, will dig the fact that DoughP makes the basics: classic glazed, strawberry-glazed with sprinkles and buttermilk-glazed berry doughnuts.
But for those who like something more challenging, there are flavors like olive oil and black pepper.
“I freely admit some of the doughnuts we make are love them or hate them,” Medford said. “Some doughnuts you’re going to like, and some you’ll think I’m disgusting for making it. There’s not a fine line on some of these.”
Medford also makes a doughnut benedict, with braised brisket, poached egg and chipotle hollandaise, served during Sunday brunch.
There’s also downright normal breakfast and lunch fare, including egg and cheese sandwiches for breakfast and soups, salads and sandwiches for lunch. The Underground Cafe is open daily at 22 S. Pack Square.
Duck Donuts: This Duck, North Carolina-based franchise has a relatively new Asheville location, just north of the Harris Teeter grocery store on Merrimon Avenue.
Americans are all about choice, which is part of the reason why this line of customizable doughnut shops (63 locations and more on the way) has been so successful. Of course, if making decisions give you anxiety, get ready to be driven to fits by the order form, which offers nearly infinite ways to decorate your soft and springy vanilla cake doughnut base.
There are about a dozen coatings, seven toppings including peanuts and chopped bacon, and about a half-dozen drizzles which now include Texas Pete.
The hot sauce, paradoxically a North Carolina-made product, is there to add punch to one of Duck Donuts’ latest concoctions: the Spicy OBX Sandwich.
This breakfast sandwich layers a sliced doughnut with an egg round, melted American cheese and sausage or bacon, all finished with a maple drizzle, chopped bacon, and a liberal shot of hot sauce.
In the sake of full disclosure, I was prepared to simply appreciate this sandwich for its effort to be different. And then I nearly ate the whole thing.
The hot sauce and smoky bacon keep everything from being too sweet, as long as you refrain from adding salted caramel or marshmallow drizzle.
“You can put maple icing on that, chocolate, coconut, peanuts — whatever you want to do, it’s up to you,” said franchise owner Terry McGee.
But, you know, don’t do that. Besides, the sandwich is already disturbingly good, with the melted American cheese offering a layer of warm nostalgia.
McGee pointed out that the spiced-up hot sauce-drizzled sandwich isn’t on the menu, just illustrated on a small sign near the counter. Think of it as a sort of off-the-menu item, like the Duck Donuts’ version of the Animal-style burger. 182 Merrimon Ave.
Hole: Bon Appetit called the bourbon-molasses doughnut from this sweet West Asheville spot “2016 Dessert of the Year.”
Then, in a can’t-make-this-up twist, then-owner Caroline Whatley put the restaurant up for sale to pursue a job that allowed her to travel around the world. Hallee Hirsh and Ryan Martin, an acting couple who traded the limelight in Hollywood for the doughnut life in Asheville, purchased the impossibly cute shop.
The doughnuts have not suffered for it. The deep-fried, tender-crisp rings of dough are still as gloriously imperfect as they’ve always been. Hot from the oil, they get dusted with toppings like sesame seeds or, on recently, a dusting of sweet-and-salty curry seasoning that seemed to have no business being as good as it was.
Coming in May, Hirsh plans to celebrate honeysuckle season with a floral glaze, made from fresh-picked flowers. Find Hole at 165 Haywood Road.
Vortex Doughnuts: This South Slope shop has all the trappings of a hipster joint: a clean and modern interior with exposed bulbs in minimalist fixtures, impeccably sourced coffee and kombucha on tap.
But, especially of late, the doughnuts have trended refreshingly traditional. Cream-filled doughnuts, traditional cake doughnuts, cinnamon-sugar and vanilla-glazed are so old-school, they’re fresh.
“We’ve pulled back a little on all the really wacky flavors,” said Vortex general manager Eli Masem. “Lots of weird tropical things that didn’t make sense.”
But blueberry glazes sprinkled with house-made cookies seem right at home. Same with the deliciously simple cream cheese frosted doughnuts, which come drizzled with molasses or blueberry.
Doughnuts represent a “nostalgia thing” for most, Masem said. Vortex answers that need for familiarity by stocking both cake and yeast doughnuts. “People are really religious about their doughnuts.”