Noe Valley Voice June 2011

A Hole in Our Hearts for Happy Donuts

By Nicole Wong

The lights are bright and the smells intoxicating at Happy Donuts, Noe Valley’s only 24-hour emporium.    Photo by Najib Joe Hakim 

Hot oil bubbles in a great rectangular vat behind the sandwich counter. Dara An remains perfectly calm and focused, twirling the rings of dough with two giant chopsticks, flipping them at the perfect golden moment. It’s 2 a.m., and there’s a line of six people waiting to reap the benefits of his labor. An is not surprised. He’s used to having an audience.

Every night of the week, people from all walks of life stream to Happy Donuts—to grab a sinful indulgence, scarf down a meal before an odd-hours shift, or just to ogle the giant apple fritters. Happy Donuts, Noe Valley’s only 24-hour eatery, is a beacon in the night.

“People come because they like to have some sweet in the blood,” says Omar Abdelhur, a city taxi driver who swears he’s come to Happy Donuts every day for the past 20 years. Why go anywhere else, he says, when Happy Donuts has “the best croissant in the city.” These days, Abdelhur usually strolls in after midnight, and greets the guys in the store like he’s meeting up with old friends.

Noe Valley resident Liz Holmes is another believer. “They make fabulous donuts,” she says. “Way better than any Krispy Kreme.”
The raves are not just word on the street. In January 2011, Antonia Richmond of 7x7SF rated Happy Donuts the best “refreshingly unhip” glazed donut in San Francisco.

A single donut may only exist for a few hours, but in this neighborhood it is part of a long and distinguished lineage. Happy Donuts has served donuts and other tasty treats out of the red-tiled corner store at 24th and Church streets since the 1970s. In 1997–98, through a bureaucratic snafu, the city rescinded Happy Donuts’license to stay open 24 hours (the shop had to close between 2 and 6 a.m.), but after more than 700 locals, including 30 police officers, signed petitions of support for the store, the city allowed the all-night operations to continue.

Though Happy Donuts enjoys a vibrant culture around the clock, the true magic of this local institution happens after dark. While most of the neighborhood is sleeping, a few night owls are hard at work, making the donuts, crullers, and cheese danishes our sweet tooth craves.

Simply Irresistible

Sunan Eng has worked at Happy Donuts from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., six days a week, for the past 13 months. He makes the sandwiches, works the cash register, and gets chatted up by the regulars.

“Since we’re on Church Street, the pastry and donut smells bring people in,” says Eng, naming the shop’s most effective weapon for sales. “Alot of people get off the J and come straight in. That’s what causes long lines, when all these people come back from downtown.” The busiest middle-of-the-night hours, Eng says, are 2 to 4 a.m.

And what do the latecomers desire?

“Ham Egg and Cheese Croissants, or anything on the night menu,” says Eng, pointing at the small handwritten sign thumb-tacked on the wall in front of the instant noodle cups. The night menu lists seven variations on the hot croissant sandwich: Sausage Egg and Cheese, Bacon Egg and Cheese, Turkey Egg and Cheese…you get the idea.

“He makes a good ham sandwich,” says Gary Gilchrist, who comes in around four times a week for a late dinner. Eng is also a courteous host, who remembers his customers’favored brand of chips and serves them up with a wide smile.

As for the sweet stuff, glazed donuts are by far the biggest draw, and Happy Donuts has been known to sell out on weekend nights. The Voice reported a 40minute wait at 3 a.m. this past New Year’s morning.

Night Moves

Other favorites include the flaky croissant, the custard raisin roll, and the classic blueberry muffin—pastries that all fall under the expertise of Lay Leng.

Leng, who like An and Eng are originally from Cambodia, is a whiz in the kitchen. From 9 p.m. to 1 or 2 a.m., he is rolling, folding, and scoring dough, shuffling trays, and filling muffin cups with gooey goodness. He estimates he churns out 60 muffins a night, and prefers them to the donuts, which are a tad too oily for his personal taste.

But evidently he’s in the minority on that, because donut-master An says he makes about 40 dozen donuts per night, and they go fast.

An’s five- to six-hour shifts are busy. From around 1 to 6 a.m., he is shoveling ingredients into the industrial mixer, cranking dough into the oil, and draping curtains of glaze over rows of fresh donuts. Many of the mini inner tubes are dipped into tubs of frosting—pink, orange, maple, chocolate—and a lucky few even get sprinkles. Meanwhile, trays of pastries sit cooling on empty tables.

For customers, it’s the stuff dreams are made of.

Glazed and Amused

On a recent Saturday night around 1 a.m., as the first batch of donuts emerges, a few patrons are disappointed to see they are glazed old-fashioned buttermilk donuts, not the standard glazed variety.

“The oil must be heated low to high,” explains An, while moving swiftly on to the next batch, “and the buttermilk donuts require a lower heat than the glazed donuts do.” The regular glazed donuts usually aren’t ready for tasting until around 4 a.m.

“Well, as long as it’s glazed,” says a customer, clearly needing his sugar fix. After stepping to the cash register, taking in the rich aroma, and seeing the glistening buttermilk log, he orders two more.

Again, An is not surprised.

Sweet Scenes

Even though there is never any music playing, or perhaps because of it, the vibe at Happy Donuts is homey and unpretentious. The retro back-lit food glamour shots of tropical smoothies and shiny pastries are a ’70s time warp, and the comfortable wooden chairs and bright lights make it feel appropriate to be eating donuts at any hour of the night.

On the back wall of the store, a painted mural depicts donut-makers at work. It’s a visual ode that nobody can tell the story behind because the mural has been around longer than the current staff, or even the boss, Lilly Yam. Yam, whose cousin technically owns the store, has run Happy Donuts for the past 15 years. “The regulars are like family,” she says.

“We like it here because it’s chill and mellow,” says Rene Ramos, who comes from Lakeview once or twice a month for a croissant sandwich and coffee. His girlfriend prefers the raisin roll. “We’ll usually stay for a half-hour to eat and chat,” he says.

For teenagers, Happy Donuts provides a venue for those too young to hang out in bars but old enough to want to wander outside the range of their parents’ watchful eyes. The place seems to be a default meet-up spot for youth looking to make plans.

“Nothing’s cracking around here tonight,” says one teen among a group of friends huddled around the back table at 9 p.m. on a recent Friday. They have brought in Arizona Iced Tea and Cheetos to munch on while talking about girls and parties.

Ring of Desire

With such preoccupations, the teens can easily resist the crumb cakes at the counter. But that’s not how it is for everyone. Perhaps cravings go up as metabolism decreases.

A woman outside peeks in through the store window, then walks determinedly past the door and around the corner of the building. But then she stops, doubles back, comes in, and orders a sugar twist.

Less than a minute later, she scampers out with her stash—a pink glow rising on her cheeks.

“Look,” says cabbie Abdelhur, “they have good service, and everything is a temptation.”