Deep-fried dough and fruit glazed with sugar sounds like a recipe impossible to flub. But Humboldt County has an abundance of goodies, and we can afford to be discerning. This was the philosophy, anyway, when my research partner-in-crime proposed finding our region's premiere pastry via a Fritter Bracket.
Loosely modeled after statistician Nate Silver's national Burrito Bracket, Fritter Nation would take us on a journey across the county, through warm kitchens and chilly drive-thrus, to our digestive limits and beyond. Antacids in the console, we bundled into the car at dawn and headed north to begin our quest.
Initially the plan was to pick a winning fritter for each town and take the leftovers to compare against rivals at the next stop. But we discovered a shocking fritter paucity in more far-flung regions of the county. Calls to sources in Trinidad, Orick and Garberville revealed there was nary a fritter to be had, unless you were making it yourself.
McKinleyville beckoned. We stormed into Ramone's, utterly perplexing the barista by storming out when she told us there were no fritters to be had. Again.(This was a scene that would repeat itself several towns over.) The lone source for fritters in McKinleyville, we learned, is Safeway (1503 City Center Road). We celebrated our inaugural bite with the development of a fritter scoring system: 5 points max for a crunchy exterior, 5 for interior texture and 10 points maximum for overall flavor. Safeway's fritter was a 2/3/6: a good middle-range score and winner of the McKinleyville bracket by default.
Had we decided to award bonus points for atmosphere, Don's Donuts in Arcata (933 H St.) could have significantly nudged up its score. Unlike rowdy evenings when bargoers flood its small tables, in the morning it smells of rising dough while old men gossip over cups of weak coffee by steamy windows. The fritters? Pretty standard, with a more subdued but melded flavor than Safeway's, the taste of the dough interplaying with the cinnamon. Don's scored 3/3/6, edging out McKinleyville and becoming the Arcata winner by default after a drive around town revealed that everywhere else buys their fritters from Don's.
Crossing the Safety Corridor just as the morning rush hour began, we strategized our approach to Humboldt County's pastry capital. Eureka would be a challenge, we knew, both in scope and in consumer loyalty. Happy Donuts (2916 Central Ave.) was widely considered fritter champion, but drive-thru Donut Mill at the old Texaco station (1411 Fourth St.), was rumored to be throwing down some weighty competition. And then there were the dark horses: Vellutini Baking Co. (502 Henderson St.) and Cherry Blossom Bakery (2940 E St.).
In the end, it wasn't even close. Happy Donut would have scored high for customer service had it been a factor. "We only have the big ones," said the smiling owner as we smiled back in mock concern. She also offered the choice of a crispy or a soft one. The fritter rated the local favorite a solid 3/3/6.
Cherry Blossom Bakery fries its fritters like they have a vendetta against apple filling. Luckily, the burnt crunchiness melds nicely with the spices and chunks of fruit. A respectable 3/2/5.
Vellutini's attempt deserves a sad trombone sound effect, with a dismal 0/2/2. No crispiness, gummy rather than chewy and too much cinnamon. Were it a cinnamon bun, it would have rated higher, but a fritter 'twas not.
And (drumroll) Donut Mill brought down the house. Dense and cakey, full of flavor, the perfect blend of crackling crisp and chewy apple-laden goodness, this was the first fritter we actually took a second bite of. And, after a morning spent elevating our glucose levels to precarious heights, that is saying something. With a high score of 5/4/8 we were almost loath to continue our research.
But we slogged on, and after interrogating locals in Fortuna, Scotia and Rio Dell, found that the Eel River Valley had only one bracket entry, at the Ferndale Pie Company (543 Main St.). I'd like to say we gave it a fair shake, but to be honest, at that point we were unsure whether we'd ever again be able to stare another fritter in its pocked and greasy face. FPC does have some lovely breakfast burritos, which joined the dough and sugar in our stomachs to form a tectonic layer of simple carbohydrates and grease. After a couple of half-hearted bites, we scored the fritter a solid 3/3/6. Then we waddled our way back to the car and began the long journey home, ready to sleep off the sugar crash before pitching another article, maybe on Humboldt County's best chile relleno.