Four decades ago, Vietnamese soldiers guided Pha San and her family through Cambodian forests and across the border into Thailand to escape genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime. Now, San is serving up fried dough confections in an unassuming shopping complex about 15 minutes southwest from the heart of downtown Winston-Salem.
San opened Kernol’s Donuts in August 2017, 38 years after resettling in Lexington in late September 1979.
“When we live in refugee camp they ask which state you wanna go: hot, cold, medium, and we say medium,” San, now in her late fifties, says. “They give us ten dollar each and we had not seen money in five year or more, so I just don’t know how to spend here. We don’t understand English at all.”
When she gave birth to her son one month later, she communicated with hospital staff through a translator in New York.
“When we fly to North Carolina, we land in San Francisco and we just sit on the floor; we don’t care if chair or not. A guy checked on our paper where we are supposed to go. He said, ‘Oh North Carolina, their people they go to church a lot,’ and I say, ‘Oh I like that.’”
In Lexington, Pilgrim Lutheran Church had found her husband a weaving job in a textile factory and provided a community space where San, her family and other refugees could learn about American culture and food, and start to pick up some English.
“We went through many [difficult] things,” San says, but she likes to think about memories that bring laughter, like the first time she witnessed snow.
“I saw it drop from the sky, but I thought maybe somebody burn something and [the ashes] fall down!”
To be with family, they moved briefly to Philadelphia, where San sewed women’s dress suits, and then to Washington state. But San didn’t enjoy big cities or the rainy Pacific Northwest, so they returned to Lexington where she would work in a tile factory for 16 years, until the company moved the manufacturing facility to Mexico, and then 17 and a half years in an exterior door factory.
“I said, ‘Before I retire, I better do something for myself.’”
Her niece was making doughnuts in Arkansas, so San invited her to help get a store off the ground in North Carolina.
Today, San offers traditional cake-recipe flavors like chocolate alongside fruity flavors like strawberry and raspberry. Her old-fashioned doughnuts are dense with a little bit of crunch and cracks that saturate with glaze. Fillings from classic Bavarian cream to raspberry, banana and blueberry bring life to her yeast-raised doughnuts.
“Glazed is my favorite,” she says. “Bear claw with the apple inside is my favorite, too. And the lemon-filled.”
San adds a dollop of the tart, yellow filling on top, so she can tell flavors apart. The five-toed, cherry or apple bear claws — which hold just the right amount of filling for balanced bites — rest alongside cinnamon buns and twists, and a medley of yeast-raised rings with fruity pebbles, coconut, sprinkles and other playful garnishes. Visitors should be sure to consider her sizeable crunchy-on-the-outside, moist-on-the-inside fritters — blueberry is the standout.
Four food and drink menus hang above the counter, too, featuring breakfast croissant sandwiches and kolaches. Customers can wash food down with hot or iced coffee or tea, boba tea, milk, soda or one of several juices San keeps in stock.
“Most the people from church we met here have already passed away,” San says. “There is only one left; he is like my father. He is about 90 now and he comes to see me here in my store.”