Who's going to notice a breakfast biscuit next to a display case filled with Fruity Pebbles doughnuts, Snickers old-fashioned, and red velvet glazed with cream cheese frosting?
Remember 2011, when people lined up for blocks outside Doughnut Vault? Tricked-out gaskets have been blending into the landscape for nearly a decade amid the rise of chains and minichains such as Stan's, Do-Rite, and Firecakes. Who can even tell them apart anymore? Does your head even swivel after a side glance at a maple-bacon long john? I'm sure it doesn't if you're passing any of the city's five bygone Glazed & Infused locations that Scott Harris abruptly closed at once in December 2017. It's hard out there for a dunker.
But maybe not so much on the North Shore, where Nicholas Philippas opened his second Joe Donut early this summer in Niles, a 3,100-square-foot enlargement on his first location, which opened two years earlier in Glenview, a suburb then untouched by the edges of the doughnut bubble.
Prior to 2008 Philippas worked in real estate development "like everyone else," before he opened Glenview's North Branch Pizza & Burger Co., an all-purpose barstaurant, in 2012. When the opportunity arose to occupy, lease free, a postage-stamp-size former post office next to the Metra stop, he hired pastry chef Elissa Narrow (Blackbird-Vie-Perennial Virant) to consult and brought in a night crew to make the doughnuts in the burger bar.
Doughnut production relocated to the new, larger location earlier this summer, and though they can stand up to any in the city's doughnut establishment—whether textured old-fashioneds encrusted with alien green pistachio, overinflated strawberry glazed, or Valrhona chocolate-iced cake doughnuts—they all do the job they were made for.
But Philippas's main goal in this expanded location was to operate an affordable family-style breakfast spot. And how to distract kids and cops from the doughnuts? A deep menu of pancakes, scrambles, biscuits, and breakfast plates that in many cases make no attempt to be any more virtuous than a salted caramel old-fashioned. That means, among a half-dozen overloaded biscuits, there's one that wallows on a plate of maple syrup gaping like Audrey II, its mouth stuffed with sausage, bacon, a fried egg, and singed cheddar and jack cheeses.
There's a showmanship baked into many of these dishes that's born out of an established local restaurant tradition. The inspiration for a variant caramelized "secret" three-cheese-blend omelet with bacon, ham, or sausage is dubbed "burnt cheese" and originated with Philippas's aborted attempt to serve a flaming cheeseburger at North Branch, itself inspired by the time-honored Chicago-Greek saganaki performance (in the end his insurance agent nixed it).
Breakfast potatoes are irregular deep-fried nuggets of shredded baked spud, crispy but soft inside. Philippas says these are "polarizing," but they make much more sense described on the focused lunch menu as tater tots and served alongside a cheeseburger, a patty melt, or a fried chicken sandwich.
But the doughnuts' biggest competition at breakfast is a sandwich that's a degenerate alliance of everything that screams for your attention at Joe Donut: a yeast doughnut battered and griddled French-toast style, split and sandwiching strata of ham, burnt cheese, and raspberry preserves. It's called the Mistress, "like your mistress you're always sneaking away to see," says Philippas. "It's not healthy, and nobody is supposed to know about it."
The proliferation of fancy-pants doughnuts was a hangover remedy from the Great Recession, and now that we're staring down another one, maybe we better not give up on them too soon. Philippas is betting we won't. He has plans to open three more Joe Donuts in 2020, one or more of them possibly in the city. v