Bialy High

A Martian walks into a bake shop and calls over the proprietor. "What are those little wheels?" the alien asks.

"Those aren't wheels," replies the baker, "they're bagels. Try one."
The Martian takes a bite. "Man," he exclaims, his face brightening, "these would go great with cream cheese and lox."

Okay, so it's not much of a joke. But neither are the bagel wars that are currently raging in the Valley. In just the past few years, more than a dozen bagel bakeries, ranging from single-unit, mom-and-pop stores to huge national chains forging multiple local links, have blossomed in our corner of the desert. More are coming. These days it seems you can't drive three blocks without passing a bagel store.

How did bagels migrate to the land of saguaros, bola ties and concealed weapons? They've been carried in by waves of savvy entrepreneurs, who have discovered that selling fresh-baked bagels is a good way to roll in dough.

The numbers tell the story. Bagels used to be specialty items, aimed at the Jewish ethnic market in a few big American cities. Just a decade ago, according to industry figures, only 20 percent of Americans even knew what a bagel was. Today, it's got a recognition rate of more than 75 percent, and the number is rising fast. Like pizza, bagels are no longer considered "ethnic" food. As a result, bagel consumption has skyrocketed, and analysts say the potential of this multibillion-dollar industry has barely been tapped.

What exactly is a bagel? The word itself is derived from the German beugel, a curved or round loaf. Made from high-gluten flour, bagels are traditionally boiled, then baked. This process gives them their trademark crispy sheen on the outside, and a contrasting soft, chewy interior. With bagels, texture is just as important as taste.

Competitive pressures, though, are leading many operators to take up bagel-making shortcuts. This may please the accountants back at corporate, but it's bad news for knowledgeable bagel lovers. Watch out for frozen dough, or dough fashioned out-of-store at a central commissary. Look out, too, for bagels that are steamed, not boiled. Frozen dough and steaming save time and money. They do not, however, make for a better-tasting bagel.

I checked out the goods at 15 Valley bagel operations. For consistency's sake, I timed my visits between 10 a.m. and noon, when the bagels ought to have been optimally fresh. I bought the same two bagel varieties at each store, a plain and a poppy.

For this test, I focused on the three major bagel components: exterior crust, interior chewiness, overall taste. Then I ranked the bagel in one of five categories: outstanding, very good, good, fair and poor. Be aware that bagels also differ, sometimes significantly, by weight and price. Note, too, that many of these businesses have outlets all over town. The address indicates the specific store I went to.

Now, the results.

Outstanding

Chompie's Delicatessen, Gourmet Bakery, Restaurant, Bagel Factory and Professional Caterer

3202 East Greenway Road, Phoenix, 971-8010
Price: 50 cents
Weight: 4.25 ounces

Run by Brooklyn refugees, Chompie's is the class of the Valley field. The bagels sport a genuinely crusty exterior and an appropriately chewy interior. The taste reminds me of the old neighborhood, too.

Very Good

Arrowhead Bagel Company
7665 West Bell, Peoria, 412-1880
Price: 56 cents
Weight: 4.5 ounces

West siders, rejoice. You don't have to drive east of I-17 for a decent bagel. The model here is strong on flavor and texture, but somewhat weaker on the crust.

Back East Bagel Company
8880 East Via Linda, Scottsdale, 661-5222
Price: 45 cents
Weight: 4 ounces

Real big-league bagel flavor, and a wonderfully dense interior. But I had to deduct a few tenths of a point for technical merit: The bagels lacked a crisp edge to the crust.

Bagel Boys & Yogurt
23425 North Scottsdale Road
(at Pinnacle Peak Road), Scottsdale,
585-6221
Price: 45 cents
Weight: 4 ounces

Outstandingly chewy, these bagels give you plenty of mouth time. They're almost optimally crusty, too. However, there's a slight sweet note to the taste that may raise an eyebrow on fussy bagel connoisseurs.

Bagel Nosh
4747 East Bell, Phoenix, 493-8220
Price: 50 cents
Weight: 4 ounces

This Arizona minichain puts out one of the best-tasting bagels in town. The chewy texture is also better than most. Only an insufficiently crispy crust keeps this bagel out of the top ranks.

Good

Bagels De Lox
10749 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale,
991-0666
Price: 53 cents
Weight: 4.25 ounces

It's a good-looking store, neat and tidy. But the bagels are a little too bready, both in flavor and texture, to suit me. A firmer crust would have helped, too.

Chesapeake Bagel Bakery
Camelback Colonnade
20th Street and Camelback, Phoenix,
277-2922
Price: 45 cents
Weight: 4 ounces

Tough to figure out this bagel. It's well-made, with an especially chewy interior and a serviceable crust. Some of my fellow mavens adore this bagel. But there's a jarringly sweet (but not unpleasant) flavor to this bagel that disturbs my sense of authenticity.

Manhattan Bagels & Deli
1084 East Baseline, Tempe, 838-3097
Price: 40 cents
Weight: 4.75 ounces

The elements are all there, but two of them need a boost. Despite a first-rate crust, this bagel is a little too light on chewiness and flavor to move up in the rankings.

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