My Schnack Attack

In reviving Schnackenberg’s, a vintage Hoboken luncheonette, new owners set out to make doughnuts that wow. They succeeded.

Is it possible to have a revelatory encounter with a doughnut? I recently had my fifth. The first four took half a century:

1) My Uncle Lou turns me on to Dunkin’ Donuts when both Dunkin’ Donuts and I were about 10.

2) Early ’90s. My first glazed Krispy Kreme, still warm from the oven.

3) Mid-’90s. My first Dreesen’s, eaten moments after watching it being made in the famous frying machine in the window of its East Hampton shop.

4) Now things get serious, even manic. Geoff Dyer’s 2009 essay, “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition,” sends me racing to Manhattan to try Doughnut Plant doughnuts. In the essay, the idiosyncratic Brit says, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “I’ve spent 20 years searching for just such a doughnut. Now that I’ve found it, I can go to my grave a happy man.” I buy half a dozen, all different. They are fabulous, the best I’ve ever had.

Until now. At brunch at Sam A.M. in Jersey City, I notice a display case of unusually good-looking doughnuts, their surfaces enticingly dark and crisp, the glazes not too shiny, the fresh-looking fillings oozing out lusciously. I order a cinnamon-sugared cake doughnut and two plump yeast doughnuts—one filled with mascarpone and glazed with dark chocolate, the other filled (and glazed) with dulce de leche. A few bites of each, and I feel like I’ve gone from a TV with rabbit ears to high-def cable.

The doughnuts, I am told, come from Schnackenberg’s on Washington Street in Hoboken. Off I go in search of the hole-y grail. Schnackenberg’s, I learn, was a family-run neighborhood luncheonette that opened in 1931, closed in 2012, and reopened in January after an astonishing period restoration, from the spinning stools and penny-tiled floor to the dapper waiters in white shirts and bow ties. The new owners, Joyce and Eugene Flinn, own two other Hoboken restaurants (Amanda’s, for fine dining, and the more casual Elysian Café). Mark Novak, a grandson of founders Doris and Henry Schnackenberg, still comes in to make the fine chocolates that fill the display case near the front door.

Next to that case is another, filled with the eight varieties of doughnuts that chef Winston Murphy, 25, and pastry chef Jose Almazo, 46, make every morning before dawn. They make a few dozen of each variety. On weekends they make a second batch around noon. When the doughnuts sell out, as they invariably do, you just have to come back the next day.

I now see Doughnut Plant in a different light. What sets it apart are its stream of high-concept creations, like crème brûlée, coconut lime, or peanut butter with banana cream. They’re fun, but on the whole too sweet and a bit airy. If Doughnut Plant is a fanciful game of charades, Schnackenberg’s is Laurence Olivier in your living room (doing Hamlet, not Marathon Man).

What makes Schnackenberg’s a serious doughnut is, first of all, its texture. You can actually chew a Schnackie cake doughnut (the kind with the hole), and the chewing is pleasure, not work. Biting into a Schnackie yeast doughnut (the puffier, filled kind) requires finesse. Chomp, and it will look like Vesuvius erupted on your shirt.

In all Schnackies, the ingredients are simple and superb: mascarpone, heavy cream, egg yolks, dulce de leche, 60 percent cocoa Valrhona dark chocolate, real vanilla pods, unsweetened, seedless raspberry purée and cane sugar, not corn syrup.

Murphy and Almazo worked their way through almost a dozen dough recipes before they hit the bullseye.
“The first ones weren’t bad,” says Joyce, “but they weren’t exceptional, and we wanted a wow!” Hiring Almazo was key. After stints with star chefs Gray Kunz and Daniel Boulud, Almazo had worked for 14 years as a top pastry chef for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, opening several of his restaurants.

“It was a case of right place, right time,” says Rodney Petersen, executive chef of the three Flinn restaurants. “He was looking for us when we were looking for him.”

Joyce emphasizes that doughnuts are “just one part of what we do.” That is true, and from what I tasted, the other parts are just as good. The $6 Schnackie burger is a plump, juicy brisket-chuck mix from Pat LaFrieda, served with terrific house-made potato chips. Schnackenberg’s makes its own corned beef and from that, its own corned beef hash. Its greatest creation may be the Eggstzel, a $3.50 “traveling breakfast,” in Joyce’s words, of scrambled eggs, chives and aged cheddar baked in a sphere of dark, salt-studded pretzel dough. It’s a minor miracle. Now that I’ve found Schnackie’s, I, too, can go to my grave a happy man. Not that I’m in any rush.

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