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Uptown finally has a doughnut shop — just like on TV

Frosted doughnuts covered in various cereals, candies and other treats are among the offerings at Uptown Donuts, 1122 W. Wilson. | PATTY WETLI/FOR THE SUN-TIMES

Ever since “Superior Donuts” debuted on CBS in 2017, fans of the set-in-Chicago-but-films-in-LA television series have been searching in vain for the allegedly Uptown-based doughnut shop that gives the show its name. It doesn’t exist.

Now, in a case of life imitating art, the made-up Superior Donuts has a real-world counterpart: Uptown Donuts, which opened over the weekend at 1122 W. Wilson.

Thi Kim, 34, a partner in the venture with lifelong friend Sal Bahad, 30, said Uptown Donuts was in the works long before the television show premiered, but he won’t mind if the coincidence is good for business.

“We thought, ‘There’s no better time [to open] than now,’ ” Kim said.

On a recent weekday afternoon, a steady stream of curious customers stopped in to check out the newcomer to the neighborhood.

Customers at Uptown Donuts can watch TV while enjoying coffee (free refills) and baked goods. | PATTY WETLI/FOR THE SUN-TIMES

“I’ve been watching their Facebook page. It’s exciting. There’s not really much else here besides Dunkin’ Donuts,” said Aaron Denk.

Denk gave a thumbs-up to both the apple fritter he sampled and the shop’s decor, which has loads of seating options whether people want to grab a quick bite on the run or settle in all day to work or study. (Truman College is across the street.)

“It’s a great space,” Denk said. “They did a good job.”

Alexis Mounsey said she was pleasantly surprised by the selection, which ranges from simple glazed yeast doughnuts to cake doughnuts in flavors like blueberry and cinnamon sugar to frosted varieties covered in fanciful toppings including Froot Loops.

“I didn’t expect there to be that many, especially the matcha. I love matcha,” Mounsey said.

Kim was quick to note that while he considers his doughnuts, all handmade in-house, to be on par with Chicago’s other artisan doughnut bakeries, among them Stan’s and Firecakes, his shop isn’t trying to be trendy.

“We want to be known more as a neighborhood spot … where everyone can feel comfortable. We’re not here for the hype, we want to be here for the long haul,” he said.

To that end, Kim and Bahad have been particularly sensitive about how they’ve priced their product, keeping the area’s socio-economics in mind: a single glazed doughnut costs $1.50; at $3 apiece, the jumbo bear claws are the most expensive item. Purchases of a half-dozen or a dozen doughnuts are discounted, just $6 for six glazed; tax is included in all listed prices. Coffee refills are free.

At some point, Kim said, the shop also plans to create a system for donating its leftovers to neighborhood shelters.

Even at that, “we feel kind of guilty charging the price we charge, but the rent is high and everything is handcrafted. Hopefully the community understands,” Kim said.

Though Uptown Donuts bears little physical resemblance to its fictitious twin, its owners’ backstory does read like the made-for-Hollywood script of an American Dream come true.

Thi Kim (left) and Sal Bahad run Uptown Donuts with Bahad’s girlfriend, Diana Rojas. | PATTY WETLI/FOR THE SUN-TIMES

Kim and Bahad were both raised in Uptown as part of a tight-knit community of Cambodian refugees who settled in Chicago in the late 1980s, having fled the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

With its diverse population, Uptown provided a welcoming environment for the refugees.

“There’s a mutual respect between the various ethnicities,” Kim said.

For years, Kim and Bahad, who graduated from Senn and Mather high schools respectively, talked about someday opening a Mom & Pop-style operation that would give a boost to the neighborhood where their families had found a home.

What that business would be, they had no idea, though something in the hospitality industry was a safe bet. Kim had years of working at Lincoln Square’s Davis Theater under his belt and Bahad had climbed his way up from prep cook to sous chef at Carlucci of Rosemont, along with gigs as a grill cook and sushi chef at Mariano’s.

Doughnuts entered the picture when Kim moved to Amarillo, Texas, with his wife to help his in-laws run their family business, Benjamin Donuts & Bakery. Turned out Kim had a knack for baking, though he’s reluctant to call himself a baker.

With Kim’s assistance, Benjamin’s expanded to multiple locations, and Bahad and his girlfriend, Diana Rojas, spent a year in Texas being tutored as apprentices.

They’ve translated that experience to Uptown Donuts. While Kim remains based in Texas, Bahad and Rojas, who studied at a culinary school in California, are handling all day-to-day operations, from baking to waiting on customers.

The couple is adjusting to a daily grind of getting up at 2:30 a.m. to bake the doughnuts and then crashing at 7 p.m.

The hours are rough, Bahad admitted, but at the same time it’s been exhilarating to finally open the shop.

“We had our first dine-in customer,”  he said, “and seeing someone in our chair, signing in to wi-fi, I was ecstatic.”

Jermaine Fowler (left) and Judd Hirsch star in “Superior Donuts,” set in Uptown but filmed in Los Angeles. | CBS