Underwest Donuts, a boutique donut shop which opened in December 2014 inside the 24-hour West Side Highway Car Wash, embodies in one swoop the evolving demographics and urban landscape of the far West Side in Hell’s Kitchen. New condos are springing up designed by the world’s starchitects, Hell’s Kitchen is expanding its reputation as a foodie destination by attracting high-end, local purveyors to places like Gotham West Market, and tourists are wandering over from the Intrepid, the cruise terminal and the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway.
Yet, there’s nothing fancy about the entrance to Underwest Donuts, where the cars first get sudsed up just after the drivers drop them off. To pay for their car wash, drivers have to first walk a long hallway–on one side they can see their car getting washed through, first up on the other side is the counter for Underwest Donuts, named after the nickname of the West Side Highway when it was ran elevated above the car wash.
Owner Scott Levine comes from a background in fine dining, having worked at Union Square Events with Daniel Myers and at Chanterelle, with stints at Del Posto and Le Cirque. He originally wanted to open a bagel shop, hoping to reinvent the New York classic as Shake Shake did for the burger. But storefront rents were so prohibitive in the city, he was forced to reconsider his culinary angle. Meanwhile, Levine’s father-in-law was looking for a food tenant for the West Side Highway Car Wash, in which he is a co-owner. Seizing the real estate opportunity, he redeveloped the concept around the car wash. Inspired by Oklahoma Joe’s bbq joint he saw in a gas station in Missouri, he knew the quirky location could work. As for the offering, he says, “I really love coffee, and I really have a sweet tooth.” For a car wash, “coffee and donuts straight up makes sense.”
Levine makes everything from scratch, applying a high-end approach to a mass-market classic: the donut. He taught himself how to make donuts and the experimentation pays off. One taste, and you’ll erase every other prior conception you have of donuts. He wants them to be moist, and in some cases, “decadent” and indeed they are–somewhere between pastry and dessert. Plus, they’re smaller than what donuts have evolved into, making it feel less of a guilty pleasure. Levine is constantly refining the flavors and textures, coming up with new flavors. He says, “If I’m going to call a donut a coconut line donut, you better we’ll be able to taste coconut and lime.” There, he uses fresh lime juice and coconut milk for to create the flavor.
At the same time, he geeks out on the nutritional facts, making spreadsheets to understand the relationship between the flavors developed and the ingredients used. With flavors like espresso bean, halva (a Middle Eastern confection of ground sesame and honey), brown butter, dark chocolate, coco rasberry and cinnamon, it’s hard to know where to start. The old fashioned donut is $1.50, the sugared donuts are sugared to order costing $1.75, and the glazed donuts are $2.50. For drinks, there’s coffee from Brooklyn Roasters, espresso, macchiato, cappucchino, latte and American
The hours align with the car wash hours, opening at 6:30am on weekdays and 7:30am on Saturdays. Levine begins his day at a shockingly early 2:30am, making the glazed donuts first because they stay moist longer. In the early hours, he sees a lot of interesting stuff–particularly drunken crowds from the nearby clubs who wander in desperately wanting donuts–unfortunately they have to wait until opening.
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