A blog can incite an intense comment flame war just by posting a “Top Bagels in NYC” list. See here and here. I’m not going to do that (at least not yet). What I’m focusing on today is how to get a good bagel near wherever you are, because not all of us having the energy for a bagel pilgrimage first thing on a Saturday morning.
Steps to Securing a Great Bagel:
1. Scout out a decent bagel place close to your home. It doesn’t have to be the best, just good. Do a few minutes of research. You don’t want to be at the worst place when the pretty good place is just as close.
2. Ask for what’s warm. Seriously, this is so crucial. A fresh bagel will always be better than one that’s been sitting around since 6 a.m. Figure out your top three bagels. Yes, maybe you’re a die-hard everything bagel guy, but have a few backups, in case the top choice is stale. If you love everything, poppy can be a good substitute, as well as garlic. People always go to sesame, but I find it often lacks flavor.
3. Ask for your bagel “well-baked.” I’ve actually never seen anyone else do this, but it is so important. If they don’t understand what that means (though really, they should), explain that you want a “dark” bagel in the basket of fresh bagels. The key to a great bagel, in my humble opinion, is the contrast between a dark, crunchy exterior and a chewy, doughy-but-not-too-doughy interior. You’re not going to get that with an undercooked bagel. I’ve gone to some great bagel places only to find they’ve given me the lightest bagel in the batch. When a bagel isn’t toothsome, you feel as though you’re biting into a mound of dough.
Below are two bagels from the EXACT SAME BAGEL PLACE. The bagel on the left is passable, fine. The bagel on the right is a dream. And let me be clear: This is very much a neighborhood place, not a destination. But an incredible bagel is still possible, if you know how to order!
4. Check out the lox before you place your order. Is it pre-sliced and a little too orange? Go with lox spread. A lox sandwich in this city is way too expensive (up to $10) for you to be paying for mediocre and often just-plain-bad lox. Also, this may not be for everyone, but my husband and I like to have good smoked salmon on-hand at home so we can make our own bagel sandwiches, which, if I may brag, rival those at Russ & Daughter’s.
Sidenote: I’m not going to get into the “are bagels are getting too big?” debate. I like bagels of all sizes, though it’s true that when they’re smaller, they’re more manageable. But hey, I won’t throw a flavorful large bagel out of bed, or more accurately, my mouth.