340 Main St., South Portland
The doughnut’s place in the pastry pantheon is changing. Its evolution — and elevation — from cheap morning sugar-rush to refined culinary experience has been nearly as rapid as the rise of the cupcake before it. (Though I don’t think there’s a “Doughnut Wars” reality show — yet.)
Here in Portland, it took just a couple years for the trend to gain traction, hitting its stride with the opening of The Holy Donut in early 2012. More doughnut joints and food trucks followed suit. Then, this past summer, sugar-fat breakfast nirvana arrived on Main Street in South Portland with the opening of Little Bigs.
The sign out front advertises “Delicious Hand Foods to Go.” Inside you’ll find an ever-changing variety of pastries, from turnovers to homemade pop-tarts, as well as plenty of savory treats you can eat and still feel reasonably good about yourself. The bacon and cheese “egg pie” (you’d probably call it a quiche, and you’d be right) is a nearly perfect breakfast food, right down to its crispy, salty potato crust. At lunchtime you can get hearty hand-pies and pastries stuffed with ingredients like steak and root vegetables or spinach, artichoke and goat cheese.
But we’re here to talk about doughnuts.
The doughnuts at Little Bigs represent another evolutionary step forward. Clearly the work of a gifted pastry chef, they’re visually stunning, artfully sprinkled with sugar and garnished with fresh berries. They demand attention, screaming promises of decadence and delicacy from the bakery rack by the front register. When I stopped in one recent Sunday morning, I was lucky to escape with only eight varieties (plus a couple of those egg pies, an oat bar and an apple turnover).
I drove back over the bridge to a friend’s apartment, where a group of five eager adults and one equally excited nine-year-old quickly got down to business. After polishing off the savory appetizers, we were ready to begin our doughnut adventure. We approached it like a wine tasting, progressing from lightest to darkest, and tried to remain straight-faced while using phrases like “playful nose” and “notes of citrus peel.” A large pot of coffee served as a palate cleanser for the adults. The kid just had to deal.
We started with a citrus curd-filled, which turned out to be one of our overall favorites. The airy, slightly chewy raised doughnut, the sweet glaze and the super-tart lemon filling struck a perfect balance. There were no crumbs left behind.
Raspberry Bismark with cream cheese was next, another raised variety. This one was much sweeter. We agreed a tarter filling would have made it even better.
Chai spice was our first cake doughnut of the morning — really more like a cake-slash-doughnut, roughly the size and shape of a tennis ball (but much better tasting). We all liked its complex spiciness, its light, fluffy crumb and its crisp edges.
Nutmeg with vanilla glaze, also a cake variety, wasn’t quite as popular. The one we sampled wasn’t fried quite as long as the previous cake doughnut, so it lacked the crispness we appreciated about the chai. With its fairly mild nutmeg flavor, it came across more like a pound cake than a doughnut.
The cream-filled and Boston cream raised doughnuts both had a custardy almond filling; they were topped with powdered sugar and chocolate frosting, respectively. These were the most polarizing doughnuts of the day. Some didn’t care for the strong almond flavor, but others absolutely loved it, especially when paired with the dark, decadent frosting of the Boston cream.
Maple bacon, where have you been all my life? Seriously, I wanted to write a poem about this thing. It was not too heavy, not too sweet, and not too salty. The only way they could have improved this masterpiece — a moist, pillowy cruller glazed with maple and topped with smoky, thick-cut bacon — would have been to give me two of them.
To be fair, the Valrhona devil’s food cake with coconut had a tough act to follow. It was kind of like The Monkees taking the stage after Jimi Hendrix. Too bad, because the doughnut was good: deep, dark chocolate cake with a flaky coconut coating that was just a bit too sweet for my taste.
These doughnuts are definitely worth a trip across the bridge. At $1.50 to $2 apiece, they’ll set you back a bit more than the typical office-break-room snack. But if you do bring a box to work, you just might get promoted.
— Dan Zarin
Little Bigs is open Tuesday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and weekends from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.