Photo by Amy TheligIn honor of the season debuts next weekfor the FOX television phenomena The O.C.and Arrested Development, we turn our culinary column toward one of their few crossover traits: Balboa bars, those vanilla-ice-cream-rectangle dreams hand-dunked in chocolate and rolled in various sweet toppings that are as much a Newport Beach tradition as implants. Although many Newport mom-and-pops sell Balboa bars, even the Iowans know the best ones are those frozen over on Balboa Island at Dad's Donuts and Sugar 'n Spice. But which rules supreme over this toniest of villages? Here's the tale of the tape:
LOCATION:Dad's Donuts occupies a bustling stretch of Marine Avenue where one can sit on a bench and watch the tourists flip-flop by. It's one of the more relaxing spots in Orange County, rivaled only by . . . Sugar 'n Spice, just two shops down from Dad's. ADVANTAGE: Even. FAME: Dad's Donuts is the shop most mentioned in newspaper and magazine dispatches from Balboa Island, usually preceded or followed by the designation "institution." Sugar 'n Spice, meanwhile, proudly displays an autographed, color cast photo of The O.C.on its storefront window—a good or bad endorsement, depending on your affinity for the show. I vote bad. ADVANTANGE:Dad's Donuts. HERITAGE: "Since 1945," says Sugar 'n Spice. "Since 1960," says Dad's. The Gregorian calendar don't lie. ADVANTAGE:Sugar 'n Spice. WORK FORCE: An elderly white woman runs Sugar 'n Spice, and most of the employees are Abercrombie & Fitch-worthy kids. A Vietnamese family runs Dad's—no workers other than Mom and sons. Both groups are equally, even overly friendly. ADVANTAGE: Shouldn't matter, unless you're terrified about the recent news that Orange County is now a majority-minority county or one of them Black Israelite types. BUILDING: Almost every Balboa Island shop was once a cottage, and these Balboa bar champeens are no different save for one key point: while Dad's allows you to walk in, Sugar 'n Spice restricts patron access to a walk-up window. Don't know about you, but I find this subtle slice of Balboa Island snobbery very endearing. ADVANTAGE: Sugar 'n Spice. BANANA SIGNS:Each business displays a massive banana sign atop their roofs, the better to draw in the perspiring. The Freudian fruit above Dad's needs a touch-up: it's faded, chipping and as alluring as an Interstate 99 billboard. Sugar 'n Spice's banana rests majestically against a marine-blue background, the peel and texture painted in such vivid detail you begin feeling vaguely simian. ADVANTAGE: Sugar 'n Spice. TOPPINGS: All Balboa bar makers offer the same toppings—peanut shavings, crushed Oreo bits, and multicolored and chocolate sprinkles that are sweet enough to replace a harvest of sugarcane. Dad's livens up this delicious monotony with butter brickle, graham-cracker crumbs mixed with butter that taste like August. But Sugar 'n Spice bests Dad's with its Heath pecan, a molar-filling sweet toffee derivation that reminds you that pecan is an underappreciated nut. ADVANTAGE:Sugar 'n Spice. PREPARATION: Standard everywhere Balboa bars are stocked—clutch a slab of already-prepared vanilla ice cream, dip it into a boiling vat of chocolate, then roll the bar on top of the requested toppings in the split second before chocolate goo cools into chocolate crust. Dad's successfully crams every centimeter of the vanilla block with toppings until it appears you're looking at a topping tray itself. The Sugar 'n Spice gang, however, fails this most essential of steps—their topping coat is usually more of a topping splotch, a Newport sin akin to registering Democrat. ADVANTAGE:Dad's. TASTE: The chocolate at Dad's is strong without being bitter and doesn't allow the topping flavor to overwhelm it. The chocolate at Sugar 'n Spice is merely standard. Both vanilla ice creams taste the same—no surprise there. ADVANTAGE: Dad's. PRICE: Two bucks at Dad's, a quarter more at Sugar 'n Spice. ADVANTAGE: Dad's. OTHER MENU ITEMS: Each confectionary also sells Dreyer's ice cream and frozen bananas, although I cannot comment on the latter since bananas disgust me. True to its name, Dad's Donuts bakes doughnuts daily—a great pick is the ham-and-cheese croissant, the meat folded within like a mini-accordion, the cheese rather sharp, the croissant buttery and flaky enough to please a Parisian. Sugar 'n Spice, meanwhile, hawks hot dogs and soft pretzels worthy of a Independence Day picnic. ADVANTAGE:Depends on what time you visit. OVERALL: The Compubox total—4-4, with two ties, one stalemate and another result depending on how racist you are. My deciding vote goes to . . . Dad's! As cozy as Sugar 'n Spice may be, splotches are unacceptable everywhere except on a Rorschach test. Regardless of choice, in the end, a Balboa bar is just a Balboa bar—heaven.
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DAD'S DONUTS, 318 MARINE AVE., NEWPORT BEACH, (949) 673-8686. OPEN DAILY, 5:30 A.M.-10 P.M.; SUGAR 'N SPICE, 310 MARINE AVE., NEWPORT BEACH, (949) 673-8907. CALL FOR HOURS.