By Paige Ross and Joanna Rothkopf, Epicurious.com
The beloved chewy yet tender staple of the New York City breakfast has set a standard that cities across the country strive to match.
In a quest to find the best bagels the United States has to offer, we enlisted the help of food writers and restaurant critics across the country. Our research proved harder that we anticipated: Journalists in San Francisco, New Orleans, and Philadelphia claimed defeat to the mighty New York version, claiming their cities just didn't have much to offer in the way of the esteemed holey breadstuff.
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In that light, some of the top bagels we found in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and St. Louis are deemed "the best" solely because they come closest to re-creating the magic baked up in the Big Apple. These shops turn out versions with that New York appearance, New York density, that New York je ne sais quoi. We also encountered an opposing school of thought that opts for the less-famous, wood-fired Montreal-style bagel. Excellent examples of these smaller, denser bagels can be found in cities like Seattle and Burlington.
The good news is that there are first-class bagels to be found in ten American towns spread out over the map. And if you can't find a proper specimen near you, try making your own with our step-by-step guide to bagel making at home.
Alpharetta, Georgia: BB's Bagels
According to John Kessler of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, unless you head north about 30 miles, you won't find anything resembling a "real boiled bagel" in Atlanta. To get a taste of the northeast down South, you'll need to make an "expedition to the burbs" for BB's Bagels in Alpharetta. It's the only place in the entire Atlanta area offering hand-rolled, kettle-boiled bagels, and earns Kessler's respect as "the city's best"-even if they do require a bit of a hike to enjoy. As a self-described "boring bagel fresser" who typically orders sesame or everything with plain or scallion cream cheese, Kessler acknowledges the beauty of BB's olive-pimiento schmear: "It has a nice sense of place because it seems kind of like Jewish pimiento cheese." (770 McFarland Pkwy.; 770- 475-1818)
Austin, Texas: Wholy Bagel
Rachel Feit of The Austin Chronicle believes the longhorns have proven themselves capable of producing a quality bagel. "I look for a slightly glossy, firm, almost crunchy exterior, with a soft, chewy interior," says Feit. "It's also important that the bagels have some salt in the dough." Wholy Bagel, opened in 2010 by New Jersey transplant and former bakery-supply salesman Scott Campanozzi, stands up to Feit's high standards. The bagels are kettled and baked on the premises, and by about 1 p.m., the shop is usually sold out of most varieties. Specialties include salt, everything, sesame, and onion, along with real pork roll flown in from back East. Wholy Bagel also takes pride in its location, offering a Texas-style baker's dozen of 14. Campanozzi's reasoning? Everything's bigger in Texas. (4404 W. William Cannon Dr.; 512-899-0200)
Brookline, Massachusetts: Kupel's Bakery
Although the "smaller and much softer" Boston bagel can't beat that nice chew you find in New York, Boston Magazine's contributing food editor Annie Copps says Kupel's Bakery in nearby Brookline, Massachusetts, makes a bagel that is somewhere in between, and offers "crazy-good cream cheese spreads." Opened in the late 1970s by the Kupelnik family, Kupel's has new owners who continue the tradition of making imperfectly shaped bagels. They offer more than 20 bagel varieties but sesame, egg, and poppy seed are their "calling cards." The extensive cream cheese selection includes scallion, honey walnut, dill, and green olive. And Copps reports that Kupel's also bakes up classic Jewish breads like rye, pumpernickel, and several kinds of challah. (421 Harvard St.; 617-566-9528)
Burlington, Vermont: Myer's Bagels
New York transplant Melissa Pasanen, who writes for the Burlington Free Press and Vermont Life, insists that nothing compares to a real city bagel, which is why she rejects imitations in her new hometown. "Myer's Bagels are Montreal-style," says Pasanen. "I like them very much-but they're different." Owned by Montreal native Lloyd Squires, Myer's Bagels serves up salt-free, thin, chewy bagels. They're boiled then baked in a wood-fired oven and come out fatter and thinner than the New York variety. Embracing the unconventional, Pasanen loves Myer's Cheddar-dill bagels and olive-pimiento cream cheese. She also praises their sesame and everything bagels, as well as a variety coated in a Montreal steak seasoning mix. (377 Pine St.; 802-863-5013)
Delray Beach, Florida: Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co.
For a bagel company whose goal is to precisely replicate the almighty bagel of Brooklyn, there can be no cutting corners, even if this means altering the H2O. Daniel Treiman, food writer for the Miami New Times and Edible South Florida, knows it's almost impossible to find that "crunchy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside" combination, but the Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co., which has multiple locations in Florida plus a few in California, has gone to the depths of their water pipes to come as close as possible. Because many New Yorkers believe the magic behind their bagels is the water, OBWB created its own water-treatment system to replicate the soft NYC water, which they use to boil their bagels in. If you're feeling adventurous, Treiman suggests their Asiago-Parmesan, Omega 3, or sunflower varieties washed down with a bottle of their "Brooklynized" water. (14451 South Military Trail; 561-455-7491)
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Lincolnwood, Illinois: New York Bagel & Bialy Corp
A bagel that's "dense and chewy, not too large, with a sort of glossy skin" is how Sam Worley of the Chicago Reader describes his ideal bagel-a precious rarity in the Midwest. Not even a big city like Chicago holds such treasures, but less than 30 minutes away, in a strip mall in Lincolnwood, Illinois, is a shop that Worley believes nails it. New York Bagel & Bialy Corp's bagels are made fresh, boiled, and then baked. Worley says their "mish-mosh" bagel, with dried onion, garlic, salt, caraway and other seeds, along with their drugstore-like hours are what make this bagel shop so special. Open 24 hours a day, New York Bagel and Bialy Corp provides a dose of carbs at any hour. Worley says, "I've never stopped in at 2 a.m., though I've been tempted." (4714 W. Touhy Ave.; 847-677-9388)
Los Angeles: The Bagel Broker
A former New York resident who appreciates the simple things in life-like a toasted plain bagel with butter-Kat Odell, editor of Eater LA, reports that the Bagel Broker is known for using high-quality ingredients to make "super fresh bagels geared to New York transplants (me!)." Founded in 1987, the Bagel Broker uses unbleached high-gluten flour, sugar, salt, yeast, and water, and boils their bagels before baking. Famous for their cheese-onion and salt bagels, the shop's offerings also include pumpernickel, jalapeño, egg, garlic, and everything, and they're known for their very popular Nova lox bagel sandwich. (7825 Beverly Blvd.; 323-931-1258)
New York: Bagel Oasis and Terrace Bagels
Finally, the boss of all bread and dad of all dough: the New York bagel. From Los Angeles to Miami, food writers across the country reported that the best bagel shops in their area stand out because they succeed at re-creating the New York experience. So, what's so special about the shops selling New York bagels in New York? Well, the fact that they're everywhere, which is why Sam Sifton, the restaurant critic for The New York Times, couldn't give us the name of just one bagel shop; he had to give us two.
Sifton says that both the Bagel Oasis in Fresh Meadows, Queens, and Terrace Bagels in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, have that "dual-fecta" of perfect crisp outside and "tangy, soft interior with some serious chew." The bagels sell themselves, so Sifton orders only a little cream cheese on a toasted plain or everything bagel, "the only legitimate flavors save sesame," he says. (Bagel Oasis, 183-12 Horace Harding Expy., Fresh Meadows, 888-224-3562; Terrace Bagels, 224 Prospect Park W., Brooklyn, 718-768-3943)
Seattle: Eltana Wood-Fired Bagel Café
Seattle Magazine's Allison Austin Scheff maintains that Eltana's Montreal-style bagels are the best in the area, fulfilling her criteria for a bagel with a soft, slightly sour interior and a bit of chew. Owners Stephen Brown and Daniel Levin opened the café in late 2010 to showcase the best of the Jewish staple, along with Eastern Mediterranean fare. They hand-roll each bagel before baking them in a large wood-fired oven that chars the outsides in spots, providing a hint of smoke. These bagels are smaller than their New York counterparts, but Eltana makes up for size with innovative flavor combinations. Scheff favors the sesame and sesame-wheat varieties, and tops them off with eggplant-pomegranate spread, date walnut cream cheese, fava bean spread with mint, or the seriously spicy garlic cream. (1538 12th Ave.; 206-724-0660)
St. Louis, Missouri: The Bagel Factory
Discovering that this St. Louis bagel shop had no Web site, Internet access, computer, or fax machine, it's hard to argue with Joe Bonwich of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the Bagel Factory, located in the Creve Coeur neighborhood, "has changed very little" since its founding in 1974. Beginning around 1 a.m. daily, the Bagel Factory gives each of their 20 different bagel flavors an "old-style boil and bake" in a 500°F stone-lined oven. This process results in a crust that's "shiny and crunchy, but not too hard, with a nicely textured interior," reports Bonwich. The Bagel factory crafts the perfect combination of chew and crunch, and Bonwich says that most of his "more persnickety New York friends won't go anywhere else." (11256 Olive Blvd.; 314-432-3583)
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Photos: Courtesy of Eltana Wood-Fired Bagel Café, Wholy Bagel, Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. Note: All restaurant information subject to change without notice. Please contact the restaurant for the most current information.