“I don’t just serve a doughnut. It’s a story,” says Jonathan Ung, maker of what’s been called the best apple fritter in Los Angeles. And it’s that story, even more than his masterful way with fried dough, that Ung is excited about sharing with the customers who flock to his takeout window nightly to score dozens of his made-to-order twists, bear claws, and, of course, that fritter.
While most of L.A.’s culinary stars want to discuss the finer points of technique or their farm-to-table philosophies, Ung wants to talk moms—his mom, specifically, whom he almost always refers to as “my beautiful mommy”. He also takes any chance he gets to inject his grandmother and sister, who became a mother a few years ago, into the conversation.
“Being a mom is the hardest job in the world,” Ung says as he drops a wire rack lined with rings of dough into the deep fryer. The sentence is a mantra of sorts to him, and he repeats it as he moves each piece around with long cooking chopsticks to keep them from sticking together. One by one, he flips them over, letting them swim in the hot oil until they turn a shade of golden brown he’s satisfied with.
“My whole idea was to instill how moms of the world cook for their kids,” he explains as he pulls the wire rack out of the vat. Picking each up with his bare hands, he tosses the pillowy yeast doughnuts in the cinnamon crumb coating that he makes fresh daily. He says most shops just use their stale leftovers to create the classic topping, but Ung achieves the crunchy texture by toasting his mixture in the oven.
“No shop will serve you like this,” he says with a laugh.
Despite all the care he takes with their preparation, Ung isn’t all that into doughnuts. He insists he rarely even eats his own creations, though he occasionally partakes in the maple-dipped doughnut holes he brings home to his mom when she gets a craving. He’s also not a “foodie,” and he has no formal culinary training. Coincidentally, his father was a baker, but he didn’t pass the trade onto Ung, who gained his skills through trial and error.
Just how he fell into being a doughnut maker is a big piece of the story he serves up to his customers. He began working at the shop (which he prefers not be named outright in this article as he’s trying to move on from his current set up and open his own spot), two years into rehabilitating his grandmother, who had suffered an aneurism. “I got so lucky to nurse my beautiful grandmamma,” he says, crediting the around-the-clock care he and his mom provided to his exuberant respect for the plight of motherhood.
When a family friend called asking for help at his doughnut shop, Ung reluctantly agreed. Being away from his responsibilities at home at night was horrible, he says, but Ung is a spiritual man, and he felt like this could be the path he’d been praying for. Even though he wasn’t passionate about the work—this isn’t a story about a man finding himself through his passion for pastry dough—he decided to give it his all. “One night I started to take everything as a challenge and wanted to serve everyone the best experience,” he says. That’s when he took on the apple fritter.
“One of the hardest doughnuts to make is the apple fritter,” explains Ung. He began to put his focus on mastering the technique, and within months he’d achieved the texture that food writer Jenn Harris of the Los Angeles Times described as a “glossy landscape of hardened icing over hills of sweet dough” when she declared that Ung’s fritter was most likely the best in the city.
The article, published last year, was very unexpected, but it provided Ung with validation that he was onto something. “The article was so beautifully written that it made me want to eat my own apple fritters,” he says. It also brought on a swell of business.
As a result of the piece, customers from Irvine to Santa Barbara descended on the shop en masse for a taste of the now famous fritter. “The article was special but the most special part was meeting all the beautiful people that came by because of the article,” says Ung.
But the excitement was short lived. Ung’s grandmother died just a few months later, and as he puts it, “My life came to a pause.” No longer responsible for his grandmother’s care, he’d lost purpose. He continued working at the shop, but he began to wonder if it was the right place for him. He contemplated becoming a nurse.
Ung spent many of his overnight hours talking to his grandmother. While he went through the motions, sweeping or frying, he was asking for her guidance. Soon, he says—and even provides photographic evidence—he began to see heart shapes everywhere, from trash heaps to egg yolk droppings. He considered it a sign that his grandmother approved of what he was doing.
“As days and days went by, I realized how lucky I was. When my beautiful grandma passed away, I realized that my life was already perfect and everything else was just a bonus,” says Ung.
While he didn’t have a desire for food celebrity, he still loved meeting people who came by to try his doughnuts, and he considered it a good vehicle for keeping his grandmother’s legacy alive. It was also a great way for him to spread the word about respecting mothers, a goal that might sound trite to some, but he really has followed through with it. Yelp commenters tell stories of Ung giving free doughnuts to their moms and preaching his mom-centric message to anyone who will listen.
“It’s exciting the fact that I get to show off my mom to the whole world, and finally get to let everybody know that moms have the hardest job in the world. Don’t get it twisted. That’s the whole message I want to give them,” he says.
Beyond the daytime hours that the shop is open, Ung now sells his doughnuts after hours, too, and that’s the time to get them as they’re cooked on the spot and served piping hot. Even though he leaves the lights off, people just walk up to the window, which he leaves open while doing his nighttime baking. When they place an order, he goes back to the kitchen and works his magic. It takes a while, but people don’t seem to mind. Ung is emphatic that if someone walks away or doesn’t come back then they’re not the kind of customer he wants anyway.
He also allows people to text him with special orders, and they do. In the span of an hour, his phone buzzes nonstop with special requests. He considers most of his customers “friends for life”, and many just come by to hang out. “The reason that doughnut shops can’t do this is they just sell doughnuts,” he says. “I serve.”
You can follow Ung on Instagram @mifavoritedonuts, and if you’re lucky, he’ll give you his phone number.