Now in its third location and the second on Bow Street in Union Square, the aptly named Union Square Donuts makes upscale donuts with a level of visual artistry higher than its predecessors and far higher than the corporate behemoth slinging similarly shaped fare. The daily selection usually includes about ten varieties—most sweet, some savory—offered on a rotating basis. Maple bacon, by far the most discussed option, has never left the roster as far as I can tell.
The small space has a display example of each donut on the counter, with racks of ready made donuts further back. The open kitchen allows you to watch the mixing and frosting as new ones get completed. Three small tables for two accommodate eat-in customers; most take their bounty to go.
Most donuts are $3, with some of the specialty varieties hitting $3.50. This is on a par with Doughnut Plant in Manhattan and a little higher than Dough in Brooklyn. There's no break for buying a half dozen or dozen, though that's probably a good thing. They're best eaten in the moment, and not saved for the next day (they don't hold up all that well over time). But get there at 7AM and there's a good chance of getting a warm one.
Here's a run-down of some of the donuts I've tried:
Maple Bacon: This donut more than any other has thrust Union Square Donuts into the public consciousness. Many things bacon are more about the concept than the actual execution, but here they actually put some thought and passion into the bacon itself. It's not just a gimmick. It's both crisp and bendable at the same time, and the color and deep pork flavor is unmistakable. And we all know bacon goes well with maple, so it's no surprise that it works well here. It works best of all when the donut itself is fresh and warm (as I've had a few times), but the bacon has always been good. Just a few more pieces of bacon would better justify that $3.50 price tag, but I have no complaints.
Boston Cream: Union Square Donuts' rendition of the official state donut might be the best example of how much of an upgrade you get over Dunkin' Donuts. You can see the golden brown marks from the cooking process. It's a hell of a lot more fresh, soft and pliable than the just-unloaded-off-the-truck-but-cooked-last-night variety. The chocolate topping has impact—and I'm not talking about textural impact from being hardened over a long holding time like the big boys. No, this is soft and dark and intensely chocolatey, so much so that there's a kick to it. Almost as if heightened by just the slightest addition of peanut butter or coffee or something, but whatever it is, it is intense and joyful. The filling isn't your typical gluey mess; instead it's more like the custard you'd get in the classic version of a Boston cream pie.
Chocolate Covered Pretzel: This recent creation takes a denser, darker, more savory dough for a base, then adds New York street pretzel salt and drizzles milk chocolate for contrast. I'm a big fan of sweet and salty and a bigger fan of chocolate and salty, but this didn't work for me. The salt is dense and very intense, while the milk chocolate is too muted. It might have fared better (for me) (remember, there's no right or wrong) had they used the dark chocolate that I love on the Boston Cream and the now-out-of-season Chocolate Marble.
Chocolate Marble: I miss this donut, which you could almost say is almost a Boston Cream, minus the cream, with a second topping added for contrast. The chocolate in this one was very decadent and very special.
Orange Creamsicle: What looks like a simple, shiny glazed donut from afar has appealing orange color and bumps just like an orange peel when viewed up close. Not coincidentally, the sweet glaze incorporates elements from inside the orange as well as the peel, much like a marmalade. There's also a creamy aspect in there—not sure how they accomplish that—to earn that creamsicle name. It's also a nice reminder of the orange ginger cream donuts from the original lineup years ago at the Somerville Avenue location.
Strawberry: No bells and whistles here, just a simple donut with a well executed glaze that's sweet, faintly tart and very strawberry-like.
Brown Butter Hazelnut Crunch: I never expected to like this one, as I'm not a hazelnut fan, but who can argue with brown butter? The sophistication it lends to the sweetness has made it one of my favorites. The hazelnuts come in fairly large pieces, about the size of chocolate chips, so you don't feel like you're eating dust.
Orange Ginger Cream: An early favorite from the first location made a recent revival. I don't taste the ginger, but I like this donut, which reminds me of a malassada in Hawaii.
Sea Salted Bourbon Caramel: Whoa. Do not operate heavy machinery after downing this one, because the alcohol is both recognizable and potent.
Peanut Butter: The silky top and gets liquified just enough to be runny and still thick, and not so runny that it runs off the donut itself. Strong and rich flavor that works well either on its own, on the peanut butter and jelly option (they rarely have both options on the same day) or the Fluffernutter from the early days.
The help are what most people who categorize people characterize as hipsters. Doesn't bother me one bit. All have been very nice.
Some have sneered at the pricetag: $3.00 to $3.50 per donut. If you want you-know-who's donuts that were made the night before and already stale before they were unloaded off the truck, knock yourself out. I'll pay for the upgrade and get something that's still fresh, possibly still warm and doesn't taste like chemicals. It's funny how people can get outraged over a $3 donut, since they can get a donut elsewhere for $1, but many of those same people have no qualms about ordering a $5 beer at a bar that they can get at a package store for $1. And the stranger thing is, the $3 donut is a significantly better donut than the $1 donut, yet the $5 beer is the same exact beer they can drink at home. Now if you say you have no problem with a $3 donut in principle, but this isn't that donut, I can see where you're coming from.
I'm a big fan of their toppings, especially the dark chocolate used previously in the Chocolate Marble and currently in the Boston Cream. I'm less a fan of the underlying donut, which is sometimes stiff or gummy and isn't sweet enough or repeatably soft enough to be considered great. And it doesn't have great lasting power throughout the day or into the next morning. The package as a whole, though, is certainly good, and (thanks to fresh ingredients and fresh product) is worth the price, even if perhaps not worth all the hype.
The Bottom Line
Is it a daily splurge? No, but it's a delicious one, even if not perfect.
Yelp reviews of Union Square Donuts
Zomato reviews of Union Square Donuts