At 6.a.m., the long lines Philippe's the Original is famous for during lunch and weekends are almost non-existent. In a few of the well-worn wooden booths sit a broad spectrum of the city's early morning populace: Metro bus drivers, city workers, and a scattering of retirees reading newspapers, sipping 45-cent coffee, and eating hot-from-the-fryer cake donuts.
Though it's rightly renowned as the inventor of the French dip sandwich in L.A. (a title contentiously shared with Cole's), one of Philippe's better kept secrets is its breakfast menu, served from opening at 6 a.m. until 10:30 a.m daily. According to Andrew Binder, a fourth-generation member of the family that has owned Philippe's since 1927, the breakfast menu can be traced back to 1908 when the restaurant lay on Aliso Street, directly in the path of the yet-to-be-built Hollywood Freeway (the building moved to its current location in 1951).
The "secret handshake" item amongst regulars-are the cake donuts
On the menu you'll find the usual diner staples: thick slabs of grilled ham and fried eggs, corned beef hash from the can, cheese omelettes, hot cakes, french toast. Sheet pans filled with streusel-topped coffee cake, cinnamon rolls and buttermilk biscuits, baked each morning, line the glass cases at the front counter. But the hidden gem on this already-overlooked menu-the "secret handshake" item amongst regulars-are the cake donuts, which sell for $.75 a piece (or $6.75 a dozen).
In the kitchen, it all begins with Sergio Guzman, who's been frying rings of dough every morning for the past 25 years. His brother José mans the flat top grill nearby, slinging plates of eggs and sausage. In past years, the kitchen would put out up to 35 dozen donuts per day. These days that number has decreased somewhat, but the workload is still enough to occupy most of Sergio's crack-o'-dawn shift, dropping dollops of thick batter into the hot fryer and flipping them with a long wooden chopstick.
The exterior has the crispy, golden-brown crunch of a proper State Fair corn dog
As any fried dough aficionado will tell you, the cake donut is an entirely different species from its yeast-raised cousin. Dense and compact, a cake donut absorbs less oil than a raised donut, which can often render it dry and crumbly in comparison. At Philippe's, this is not a problem. The batter is seasoned lightly with nutmeg, enough to give it that warm spice flavor, then fried for several minutes in canola oil until its color is a few shades short of auburn brown.
Hot from the fryer, the exterior has the crispy, golden-brown crunch of a proper State Fair corn dog, which gives way to the soft, tender cake beneath. No wonder they won the "best cake donut" prize at the 2nd Annual L.A. Donut Summit in 2011 (according to Binder, Anthony Bourdain asked about the donuts offhand when he visited in 2007, but it was past breakfast time).
You can get your donut plain, which might be the most satisfying form, or dusted with cinnamon sugar, or powdered sugar. It's not uncommon to order a trilogy.
The most important thing to remember in all of this, though, is to arrive early. As the hours advance, the donuts began to lose their charm. By the time breakfast ended, the donuts are sad, soggy shadows of the previous selves. He or she who pays for a donut at 10:29 a.m., plays the fool.
But he who strolls in around 6 a.m., most likely groggy and a bit disoriented, orders a cup of Apffel's coffee and a fresh donut (total: $1.20) can feel like a king for a pauper's price at this century-old landmark in Chinatown.