Saturday, June 30, 2018

New York City Bagels


I think that, in general, New York City is overrated. Probably this is because of cognitive dissonance … the people who live and suffer there need to overrate everything to justify their perseverance. Granted, I’m basing this largely on the testimony of one friend, who grew up there, assumed it was the only place to be, came out to California for vacation, came to his senses, and never went back.

When several people emphatically told me that you couldn’t get a real bagel outside of NYC, I was tempted to ignore them. So often, overzealous opinions like this are an attempt to promote the speaker in some kind of epicurean hierarchy. However, I have also been inclined to trust this assertion, because these were unashamed Californians promoting NYC bagels, and ones whom I respect. So, during a recent business trip, I made a pilgrimage to a highly rated Manhattan bagel joint to see for myself. Read on for my shocking verdict.

But first…

First, let me bag on NYC some more. (This is to establish my cred as a NYC skeptic, and because most of my readers aren’t from NYC and thus might enjoy this criticism for its own sake.) The weather during my visit was perfect … for NYC. Mild, sunny, but a bit muggy, pleasant enough, but it had nothing on our everyday weather in the Bay Area. The people-watching is admittedly great in NYC, but there are far more people than you really need to see. It’s the only place I’ve been to where bad traffic isn’t just a vehicular phenomenon. The sidewalks are absolutely thronged. It’s kind of hard to move.

I went to the best-rated restaurants I could find, by searching on “best restaurant near me” across Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Google and seeing what places came up on all three top-ten lists. Generally this meant places with a 30- to 60-minute wait on a weekday evening. First we had New York style pizza that was supposed to be among the best, and it was, well … fine. Good, in fact, but not actually as good as what I can get 0.6 miles from my home. Two appetizers, three drinks, and one pizza between the two of us ran $120. The next dinner was at this Zagat-rated Italian place where the food was decent but unremarkable, for even more money.

In case you want more objective input, neither place had any local beers on draft . The second place had no draft beer at all and nothing local in bottles. Beer at both places was $9 a pop. The emperor is wearing $400 jeans and a $180 t-shirt.

Planning my pilgrimage

Before heading out for bagels on the last morning of my trip, I did some research to find the best place. Here’s what I found. Thrillist, the first hit when I googled “best bagel in nyc,” says Ess-a-Bagel is the best. The next hit, Grubstreet, ranks Utopia Bagels as number one, but that’s way the hell out in Queens. Grubstreet ranks Ess-a-Bagel as 5th best, so I continued investigating that one. says Ess-a-Bagel is 3rd best. Foursquare ranks it 4th. Gothamist ranks it 2nd. Yelp is useless here because there’s a place called Best Bagels that outsmarts Yelp’s query engine. (Well played, Best Bagels.) Since Ess-a-Bagel wasn’t terribly far from my hotel, I chose it. Knowing I might face a serious wait once I reached my destination, I wasn’t about to spend more than half an hour walking anywhere.

(Of course New Yorkers could debate the topic of “best bagel in NYC” ad infinitum, and probably get in a fistfight over it, but I figured this collection of ratings—five top-5s—was good enough. If New York bagels are really all that, you should be able to pick a place practically at random and totally score. At least, that’s how it is with taquerias in San Francisco.)

Notwithstanding my skepticism toward all things NYC, I was pretty optimistic that my bagel would be worth the trip. I based this on the glowing praise of New York bagels I’d encountered in The New Yorker, particularly the article “The Magic Bagel” by Calvin Trillin (March 27, 2000). (No, I don’t carry a folded-up copy of this article around in my helmet. I’d merely held a vague recollection that a solid writer had praised NYC bagels. Only just now did I chase down the precise source.)

At the same time, I was prepared for disappointment, based on my fruitless quest to find a good cheesesteak in Philly. I was there for the better part of a week, a couple decades ago, and ate almost nothing but cheesesteaks the whole time in search of a good one. I interviewed cabbies, newsstand guys, and assorted locals for recommendations, but nobody seemed to know what I was talking about. “Yeah, you can find cheesesteaks here,” was the typical response, delivered with about as much enthusiasm as I’d have if a tourist asked me, “Can you get Oreos in Berkeley?” Every cheesesteak I had in Philly was the same: bland spongy white roll without a hint of character, like Wonder bread; greasy ribbons of uniform grey meat; a layer of Velveeta the consistency of duck shit; not a particle of vegetable matter. When I asked about peppers and onions I just got a blank stare. Ditto when I asked about getting any cheese other than Velveeta. It turns out that Philly cheesesteak sandwiches are enjoyable in inverse proportion to their authenticity. If you want a good one, I highly recommend San Francisco. With that in mind, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that the NYC bagel could be equally disappointing.

The one-star reviews of Ess-a-Bagel

Having tentatively settled on Ess-a-Bagel, I perused the one-star reviews. This wasn’t because I actually expected to change my mind (unless I came across a shocker like “this place only has whole-wheat!” or “the bagels are made once a week and come pre-packaged in plastic bags!”). It’s just that I almost can’t resist one-star reviews—they’re a guilty pleasure .

I didn’t find any real jewels among these reviews (most of them were about how rude the staff was, blah blah blah) but a few stood out. One was a long tale of how the reviewer had big important plans and thus placed her order online, only to discover when she arrived that it wasn’t ready yet (imagine!) and then they couldn’t seem to find it, and she waited and waited, and then discovered that her order had been ready for some time but they hadn’t told her, etc. Myself, I really don’t care if a bagel joint is proficient at the Internet ordering game. That’s IT stuff. (I’m sure Chipotle could handle online ordering just fine, but that doesn’t mean they know the first thing about making good burritos.)

Next, a one-star reviewer from Orange County complained, “The decor is horrible.” Décor? Who cares? Honestly, if I discovered that proper bagels had to be dug up from the dirt like potatoes, I wouldn’t care. Then, a reviewer named Kelsea titled her review “Confusing.” I love that. An entire experience distilled to one word. Her review says, “I stayed in the hotel to rest and my husband walked over to the 3rd Ave location.” Resting? Why was she so tired? Could this have compromised her experience? After all, it does take a lot of jaw energy to chew a good bagel. Anyway, what confused her is that her order was wrong. Is that actually confusing? I mean, it happens. Kelsea continued, “I did have a bagel and it was very nice and fluffy on the inside. Unfortunately, they weren't sliced, so we had to scoop the cream cheese onto it.” Um … is your lack of a knife really Ess-a-Bagel’s fault?

The Ess-a-Bagel

Okay, then, on to my own experience. First of all, in the amateur-review spirit of giving all kinds of irrelevant personal information, I must disclose that NYC blocks are really long, like a quarter mile, and I was wearing dress shoes because it’s all I brought on my trip, and after having walked for 3½ hours the evening before (highlight: Central Park has fireflies!), my feet were in a world of hurt. Each step was wince-inducing agony. It was a good half-hour walk. The line wasn’t as bad as all those one-starrers had whined about. But that didn’t matter, because the five-star reviewers had offered a little tip: if you don’t want to wait in line, you can go to the back and buy unsliced bagels, and  little tub of cream cheese, without waiting. (Aside to Kelsea: there are plastic knives there, free for the taking … your husband is just a bonehead.)

Here’s the exterior.

Here is the back counter where you don’t have to wait. 

As you can see, the décor is irrelevant because look at those glorious bagels! And look at the steam coming off that big drum. I have to say, the guy working the counter, Richard, didn’t smile or say a word to me, and that royally pissed me off. The nerve of that guy!

Naw, just kidding … I mean, who cares? I didn’t go there to socialize. I asked for two Everything, two Onion, and two Cinnamon Raisin, and he put them in a bag and handed it to me. How much more complicated does this interaction need to be? Where does customer service come in? What, did the one-star reviewers ask for gluten-free? Did they ask for a taste spoon? Did they ask all kinds of foolish questions, like which bagels had the fewest calories or which ones would appeal to an eight-year-old?

While the cashier rang me up (my order was like $12 with the cream cheese, a bargain), I leaned over the counter to peer into the bakery at a batch of boiled, but not yet baked, bagels. Why have I never gotten to see this before? Fascinating! The unbaked bagels were like little embryos.

Alas, while I was snapping the above photo I completely lost track of my transaction with the cashier, who now said, “Move along, numbnuts.” I won’t knock a single star off my review for that, by the way, because I had it coming: I was holding up the guy behind me. Also, she didn’t really say that. Actually she smiled and said, “You’re all set!”

Amazingly, a little chair and table were available. (In NYC, such simple luxuries are, I’ve found, actually amazing.) I was so relieved not to have to walk all over the city to find a peaceful place to eat. I was feeling kind of rushed, because these bagels were warm. That warmth coming through the bag was tantalizing.

The first bagel I happened to pull out was an Everything. Check this bad boy out.

That’s the underside. I don’t know about you, but I found its appearance pretty thrilling. It helped that this amazing caramelized-onion aroma was coming off of it. Here’s the topside.

Surely there are New Yorkers who would bemoan the size of this bagel, or the shape, or the fact that the hole is practically closed up, but I couldn’t care less. I was practically drooling as I sliced and slathered it.

Then finally—as  I lifted it to my mouth—came the moment of truth.

Here’s where this bagel could suddenly let me down, all the promising early signs notwithstanding. I once drove to every bakery in the vicinity of Columbus, Ohio looking for a decent baguette, and while most could be ruled out through visible inspection alone, one place did have great-looking baguettes. Only when I bit down did I realize this bakery was manned by a bunch of clowns who didn’t know the first thing about baking. Granted, I don’t know the first thing about baking either, but I know what I like. At least, now I do. For years I thought our Bay Area Semifreddi’s baguettes were da bomb, until one day my grocer was out and I tried Acme and realized with a pang that I’d been deluded all along, that this was actually what a baguette should be, how you could hear the quality—that crackling sound as the crust was compressed—before you even finished biting into it. Only when I experienced Acme did I realize Semifreddi’s was like cardboard by comparison. The height of quality cannot be predicted—only recognized after the fact.

Okay. Back to Ess-a-Bagel. What I have to report is that this NYC bagel thing is real, folks. I haven’t had a culinary epiphany of this magnitude since, well, discovering Acme. Chewing my first bite slowly, I set my bagel down and stared at it. My brain struggled to comprehend what it was encountering. “Well,” I said to myself. “It’s certainly the best bagel I’ve ever had.” I took another bite. That initial response really didn’t cover it. This was categorically different from any bagel—in fact, let’s just say it, any so-called bagel—I’d ever had. I ate some more. It was simply remarkable. Every flavor, from the little onion bits to the crystals of salt, was more powerful, more distinct, and better than anything I’d had before. And the texture: oh man. The crust was really chewy, but without being tough. The interior was soft but puffy, like a feather bed. I wasn’t merely chewing this thing; I was plunging into it.

Paradoxically, the pleasure was extremely simple—so much more basic and satisfying than, say, picking at some fussy gourmet thing, some tiny dab of truffle-infused lobster foam emulsion on a shard of tarot chip or whatever. This bagel was like comfort food, but without being lowbrow. It was clearly the result of highly enlightened craftsmanship built on a real understanding of the one right way to make this thing. It was utterly simple and yet unaccountably delicious.

Three bites in, everything fell away except the sensations I was taking in. Well, almost everything. An unrelated thought crept in, an inchoate fear, that something was going to keep me from continuing to enjoy this. It was the panic of an addict whose supply is threatened. I reassured myself that I had a whole bag of these bagels in front of me, a whole tub of cream cheese, and a table to myself, and nothing would stop me from extending this utterly pleasant experience out into the future. Upon having this realization, I started to cry. I’m not just saying my eyes teared up; I mean I was actually crying. Big tears were rolling down my cheeks as I ate.

(Perhaps the great thing about New York City is that everybody leaves you alone. Nobody noticed my absurd behavior; nobody came over and said, “Buddy, are you okay?” I could just keep eating, and keep crying, in peace.)

What was going on? Beats me. It’s not like I’d been a POW for several years, missing my hometown of NYC, who finally got released and headed straight back to the bagel shop I’d been going to for forty years. I was just a newb—but an appreciative one. The pleasure was simply overwhelming. Something about this starchy apogee was flipping switches and throwing levers deep within my brain chemistry, pleasure centers that don’t often get engaged.

I’m not saying that if you head over to Ess-a-Bagel that you, too, will cry over all the bagel-y goodness. I was probably actually crying about something else, perhaps something deep-seated that just needed to be unleashed.( I’ve heard of yoga unlocking people this way.) Whatever the case, it takes a pretty special bagel to do that. I’m now prepared to say it takes a bagel from NYC.

Look, even if you’re not trying to have a gastronomic epiphany or plumb your own emotional depths via starchy indulgence, you should try to get your hands on a New York bagel sometime. They’re really fricking good.

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