The New York Bagel: How, What, Where, Why

When you sit down to eat your bagel, it’s like unwrapping a tiny present excessively hidden under many layers. You firstly open a large plastic bag, then remove a second smaller paper bag. Inside the paper bag you’ll find a bagel, but it’s usually double wrapped. Finally, it’s there, so much satisfaction fighting through all of those layers to reveal your New York Bagel.

It’s not easy getting to this point, I think you either need to be a local, or you need the opportunity to spend a fair amount of time observing how the process of buying and choosing a bagel works. The first time ordering a bagel is daunting, it’s not like walking into a sandwich shop, quite often you won’t even find a menu. The system works differently to what we’re used to in Australia. Set choices aren’t made for you, you have to make your own decisions and it’s terrifying…

Firstly, New Yorkers are highly consumeristic and decisive so they know exactly what they want before they’ve even walked into the shop. From there it’s an easy process of ordering, collecting and paying. There’s no dilly dallying in a bagel shop, you just can’t stand there umming and ahhing, or asking questions because you don’t have any idea which one of those 20 different cream cheese flavours would best pair with a pumpernickel bagel. Getting past this point can be difficult, but a safe bet for those of you that enjoy a little smoked salmon in your life is definitely a bagel with cream cheese and lox. Usually this will come with all the trimmings, but it’s worth while asking for the capers and red onion to top it off.

If that’s not your cup of tea, then things begin to get hard again. I mean there’s scallion cream cheese, jalapeño cream cheese, even strawberry cream cheese, or maybe you don’t want cream cheese at all. I’d roll with what ever comes to mind and if you get some weird looks from the person taking your order, then you’re allowed to ask for some tips.

The bagel culture in New York is like nothing I’ve seen before and it’s incomparable to any other food experience. It’s the staple of the city, always there when ever you want or need it, like a good friend. The standard is pretty phenomenal, driven by expectation and competition. There’s no room for a bad bagel in NYC, however some definitely standout above the rest. Here are my picks for the best New York bagel experiences:

Murray’s Bagels

It’s a favourite among New Yorkers, recommended to me more than any other bagel shop in NYC and I can definitely see why. The bagels at Murray’s are just as you want them and primed to be made into a crazy sandwich. I made a slight mistake the first time I went because I ordered pastrami, thinking it would be just like the pastrami from Katz’s. It was really saved by the delicious everything bagel it was being hosted by and when paired with swiss cheese, sauerkraut and mustard it actually turned into a fair winner.

I went back with a whole lot more experience and New York confidence; I knew exactly what I wanted. It was the first time I’d been up before 12 in a while, so a breakfast themed bagel was a must. Two eggs, bacon and american cheese. When you bring it back to your table and finish fighting through all of those layers of wrapping you’ll start to see that delicious american cheese oozing out all over the place, like an overflowing fondue – such a beautiful sight. Overall, if you’re more into the meat and cheese aspects of a bagel sandwich, then I think Murray’s is a good place to start. If you’re more about the bagel, then it wouldn’t hurt to look elsewhere…

Black Seed Bagels

Disrupting the New York bagel scene, Black Seed has brought a piece of the Montreal bagel culture and plonked it right in the middle of the city. It’s nice to see someone taking a risk and trying something different in a place that’s known globally for it’s distinct bagel supremacy. I suppose New Yorkers could finally put the age old debate of discovering the world’s best bagel to rest.

Just by looking at a Black Seed bagel you can immediately tell there’s something different. There’s a huge hole in the middle, they’re smaller and more dense. After taking the first bite, you realise they’re slightly chewier, and have a different taste. The balance between salty and sweet is close to perfection. If I had to pick one sesame bagel to munch on by itself the Black Seed sesame bagel would be my pick. Unfortunately their everything bagel left much to be desired, looking naked with scarce toppings.

The Black Seed brand is just cool. I find every other bagel store in NYC to be horribly similar. It’s as if they’ve all copied each other, rather than trying to create something different. The insane popularity of bagels in NYC doesn’t promote this innovative style of thinking, because I honestly think it’s impossible to start a bagel store in NYC and fail. Every single bagel shop I’ve walked into always seems to be packed at lunch time and bustling at all other times of the day. The owners of Black Seed have finally broken away from this stigma and done something different. From the wood fired bagel oven in the back, to the tunes filling the store, it’s a nice place to come and chew on a bagel.

Unfortunately, this does come at a price. Black Seed Bagels are ridiculously overpriced. Their bagels are small, scarcely filled and about half the meal that a typical New York bagel is. I appreciate the artisanal aspect of the place, but in all honesty that’s not enough to keep me coming back. A plain bagel is reasonable value and if I lived in New York I’d be picking up a fresh batch every Sunday morning, taking them home and filling them with cream cheese and lox bought from Russ and Daughters during the week. But I’m not a New Yorker and that’s not their style.

Russ & Daughters

With a reputation to rival the best deli’s and bagel shops in town, I couldn’t miss a visit to Russ & Daughters. I knew almost nothing about the place, other than the fact that the thing to try was a bagel with cream cheese and lox. They definitely know their smoked and cured salmons, but when it comes to the bagel, I’d definitely be looking elsewhere.

The store was packed from back to front and the service, despite being very friendly and diligent, was painfully slow. There was no sense of urgency, even with a rammed packed shop (avoid going in there on the weekend if you can). The other let down was the price – 2 bagels cost $28 ($40 AUD!!) which in all honesty is a joke… Perhaps if the staff were trained to put together a bagel sandwich in less than 5 minutes they could charge a more reasonable price. What I did notice however, is that a lot of people were ordering the individual ingredients and most likely doing a DIY bagel thing back home, I’m guessing because it costs a fraction of the price.

In all fairness the range of salmon is down right awesome. I had a really smoky Scottish smoked salmon which was delectable and a kippered, or hot smoked salmon just for something different. The cream cheese is also pretty special – double whipped – so creamy, yet light. If you’re having a bagel party at home, pop into Russ and Daughters during the week or early in the morning to pick up cream cheese and salmon to go, then buy your bagels fresh from one of the awesome bagel places in New York.

Brooklyn Bagel and Coffee Company

I was tipped off about this place by a Brooklynite and I’m very glad I checked it out. Brooklyn Bagel and Coffee Co. does exist in Manhattan, but it’s a breath of fresh air getting away from the high rises, seeing the sky and finding a good bagel shop without the wait. That’s possible in Astoria, where you’ll find a traditional looking Bagel shop with a slight difference. Brooklyn Bagel and Coffee Co. truly live up to what they stand for, “At Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Company we are committed to providing your taste buds with a euphoric experience!”.

My favourite bagel in the whole city was from Brooklyn Bagel, because they sub out the creme cheese for avocado in their lox bagel and the results are truly euphoric. The capers are perfectly tangy and juicy which complimented that avocado and smoked salmon so incredibly well. These guys clearly think outside the box, and are conscious about the wholesomeness of their bagels – the results are obvious.

Tompkins Square Bagels

No matter what time of day you’re going to find a big line at Tompkins Square Bagels, but fear not they have some of the speediest service in town! Lining up is a painful thing and a little too customary in New York, but it does mean one thing and that’s the fact that you’re lining up for something good, or in this case something amazing. Walk through the store admiring the bagels behind the counter; constantly being topped up by the overflow of nonstop baking. Once you reach the back of the line you’ve got full view of the heart of Tompkins Square Bagels – the oven. It takes up a big chunk of the shop and watching it being worked by the baker is mesmerising. Bagels are literally thrown from the kettle boiler onto wooden planks, ‘washed down’ with water and finally doused in countless seeds and toppings before being slid into the oven.

There’s a nice vibe to this shop, the staff are from all walks of life and they work hard to bring you what I feel like is the finest bagel experience in town. It all boils down to the freshness, which just can’t be beaten. There’s no need to toast these bagels, they’re chewy, have a slight outer crunch and are the perfect size. After visiting a few times I developed a favourite which was an everything bagel with eggs, bacon and american cheese. Everything is prepared fresh and it’ll be served warm, oozing with cheese. Another interesting combo was pumpernickel with creme cheese, turkey bacon, red onion and tomato. I’d never heard of turkey bacon, but damn it’s good and a perfect addition to the staple cream cheese on pumpernickel. If you’re only in town for a short visit and can’t make it to all the bagel stops, this would be my definite pick.

2 thoughts on “The New York Bagel: How, What, Where, Why

  1. Dave,
    Great and comprehensible New York bagel article. We tried a few bagels while in New York recently and they were great. i am curious how NY bagel compares to Montreal one. I am waiting on further updates from Canada. Stay safe. Jasminka

    1. Thanks Jasminka, I love the New York Bagels too! I’m in the process of writing something up about the Montreal bagels so you won’t be waiting too much longer!

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