Single Federal File

by James Boo on June 1, 2012 · 2 comments

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Restaurants crowd-source annoyance. Long waits and stuffy spaces are why I hesitate to have dinner in Manhattan or check out anything that smacks remotely of a new attraction. If I’m going to spend more than half an hour just getting to the meal, I prefer to stretch that time across a more meaningful plane than the restaurant lobby.

My intolerance extends beyond the crowd itself to crowd behavior – and it runs right past than the word “hipster.” In fact, public enemy number one on my roster of New Yorkers waiting on line are the diners who forcibly narrate their meals as arms-length forays into the lusty dens of “hipsters,” “foodies,” and the straw man of the table known as “hipster foodie.”

This isn’t to say my terms are any more endearing. Like a fourth-year Wiliamsburg transplant complaining about “bridge and tunnel” visitors showing up to the latest dive-style bar, I, too, judge crowds by scent. Through my crowd filter, Ippudo proves that trends can supersede food; Pies and Thighs embodies destination dining as the destruction of local character; every bar on the Lower East Side makes my bones creak; and Shake Shack is a top-tier Malthusian indicator that Manhattan is a pure fuck-up of population density.

I could chalk this up to mortal anxiety. One day, I’ll be (God willing) a scatterplot of ashes in space, where (God willing harder) there is no line for a Shake Shack burger. The crowds of New York will go on without me, fixed points in a muted tide. And if the place mat is a mirror, reminders that our reflections are more or less the same can’t help but taste glum.

In the meantime, I’ll just join a different type of crowd. A crowd that isn’t necessarily shaped like a bottleneck, in a place where standing on line is more a shared moment than it is the volunteered cost of being somewhere significant.

That crowd is composed of Philadelphians. That place is Federal Donuts. That moment is the most fun I’ve had waiting for food that doesn’t involve Disneyland’s Little Red Wagon.

My first morning glance at the up-and-coming doughnut concern, carved stylishly into a corner of South 2nd St., gave away none of its cult status. However, an hour of nursing my coffee – and watching the noontime rush slowly fill out this spartan parlour of a shop – illustrated the draw of Federal Donuts with an earned sense of vitality.

Damn good cake doughnuts were the foundation of the scene, and Federal Donuts offers two types: “fancy” ($2) and “hot” ($1.25). The fancy selections, wearing eye-catching flavor combinations like “Nutella-Tehina-Pomegrante” and “Halvah Pistachio,” are like less garish cousins to the Doughnut Plant, catnip for anyone looking to brand their visit as a hipster foodie safari.

The default order on this morning, though, was “hot” – delicate rings of tacky, pudding-like batter plopped into hot oil, floated downstream, plucked from the bath and dusted with sugar and spices before making it into the hands of calmly waiting customers. The freshly fried dough, almost silky in texture, bounced back against the first bite, then was suddenly gone. Its texture was rich but not dense, and the coating of “Appolonia Spice” – cocoa, orange blossom, and some other measure of wonderful things – provided more than a tickle.

Fresh, meticulously prepared doughnuts on a Sunday morning are good reason enough for an extended wait, but they didn’t explain why Federal Donuts had turned into a fire hazard. While turnover for hot doughnuts was admirably brisk, most customers lingered to nurse their coffees long after nipping crumbs from their fingers.

The tickets they held marked spots in a commingled line for fried chicken. By the time the numbers were handed out, an urban mass had packed the place to the seams of comfort; still, the door continued to creak open and shut every few minutes. In the East Village I would have made my exit without a second thought, but on this quiet corner of Philadelphia, where a plain-clothed crowd filtered into a demure doughnut shop to clutch humbly at “chicken tickets,” each body only added to the excitement.

Our shared anticipation was not for naught. Federal Donuts’ fried chicken, thoroughly crackling on the outside and consistently moist inside, comes in a basket and goes with little more than moment’s notice. Like the doughnuts, it’s prepared two ways: dry or glazed. Neither option lacked charm nor taste.

Federal Donuts’ za’tar-spiced chicken is particularly special, capturing the robust, fruity-and-savory flavor of sumac and dried spices with a payoff I have yet to find at a MidEastern restaurant. Tart and sweet Japanese-style pickles on the side are just about perfect, and the consequent buzz of lip smacking is a nice reminder that the American palate is not to be denied.

I walked away from Federal Donuts wondering if it would be nearly as enjoyable as a dining attraction in New York. The meal that brings people together over strong coffee and dollar tips certainly has its place in the same city that routinely sends people from skyscraper to steak house. Still, the jaded New York transplant in me wants to believe that this crowd was less cosmopolitan, less desensitized, and simply less used to waiting for things that aren’t truly worth their while.


Federal Donuts
1219 South 2nd St.
Philadelphia, PA 19147


Zach June 3, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Love this post

Mark Mullaney June 8, 2012 at 11:50 pm

The sugary donut and the coating of the chicken looks extremely delicious.

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