You can find a good bagel in Arizona. This fact defies the longstanding idea that good bagels are native to New York and don’t travel. Whether elevated because shaped by hands imbued with generations of practice, or because of the tiny metals in the city’s pristine drinking water, New York has a peerless reputation for bagels.
But the truth is that it isn’t easy to find a great bagel in New York anymore. You can find them, but it takes work. This drop-off revealed itself with painful clarity a few years ago, when a Montreal-style bagel shop that produced average bagels (at best) became the darling of the city.
Northwestern New Jersey makes the best bagels I’ve eaten. This isn’t the New Jersey of The Sopranos or Jersey Shore. It’s a hinterland of mountains, sleepy roads, and glassy lakes flanked by pine forests. My wife lived in this area for a chunk of her life. The bagel shops in these parts start long before sunrise, boiling bagels that have density yet lightness, puffiness yet chew, and bodies that balloon with a sheen and spill inward so that the central hole is practically closed.
Back in those days, the best part of our Christmas mornings was, early in the drive from her family’s house to mine, stopping in for egg-and-cheese bagel sandwiches, and maybe for everything bagels, for sesame-seed bagels, for French toast and blueberry and whole wheat bagels for the next mornings.
Out in Arizona, we almost never eat bagels.
That could change for me. Super Chunk Treats & Sweets in Old Town Scottsdale makes a decent bagel. Like the fast-talking, coffee-pounding bagel savants in the northwest of New Jersey, co-owner Country Velador rises early to start the boiling.
“We use a sourdough starter,” she says. “We’ll feed our starter the night before we make them. And we come in the next morning and make the dough, and then they sit in the cooler overnight.”
This process of fermentation and proofing, lasting about a day and a half, speaks to the right, hard-way approach. Velador doesn’t cut corners.
She shoots for a bagel that’s less like a “sweet roll” bagel she has tasted in other parts of metro Phoenix. She dutifully tends to her starter. She uses filtered Arizona water. She makes several dozen bagels a day. You can find them in Super Chunk, or Chula Seafood, Sip Coffee & Beer House, and other breakfast happy places in a number that will likely increase over time.
Velador adds nice touches. Her everything bagel has the usual seeds and bits of allium, but also black sesame seeds and Maldon sea salt. Her many schmears shame your standard xanthan gum cream cheese. Order right, and your bagel will come draped with Chula Seafood smoked salmon. Visually, the bagel is lean, with scant puffiness and an oval hole in the middle.
The bagel’s ample seeding brings tiny bursts of earthy, sprouty flavors. As you eat through, seeds pop from the bagel, drizzling black flecks and onion specks onto the table.
These bagels don’t have the capacious breadiness of bagels back east. They don’t have much sheen. You get the dense but soft chew and simultaneous airiness of a great bagel, but not in full. Rather, the bite is somewhere on the continuum between bread and New York-style bagel, somewhere closer to bread. Though there is some of that signature chew, it isn’t the dominant sensation. It doesn’t fill your head completely, which is how the very best bagels should strike you: the idea that you are eating a baked product of dense, spongy, impossible texture takes over, and you marvel until there’s nothing left to chew.
A Super Chunk bagel shoots for different stars.
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You pick up on that intention from early on. The intention isn’t a New York-style bagel, but another kind. Both you and the baker are aware that you aren’t in Brooklyn. That mad blitz of chewy bagelness isn’t the goal. That texture more in the vein of bread is intended. The bagel is more in the Montreal style, lean and wood-fired, than the chewy, puffy, classic New York.
Boiled with Arizona water, shaped in the sunset state, and dreamed by a baker who makes chocolate cookies with mesquite, these bagels quietly tell you that you’re eating an Arizona-style bagel, if one can exist.
So, yes, from time to time I will eat a bagel here. And I will eat them at Super Chunk, knowing they aren’t made to perfectly track the contours of a New York bagel. But I don’t know if I can say the same for my wife. Raised on bagels in bagel heartlands, far from a food snob, she took one look at the lean bagel I brought home to her and, in a mere glance, knew everything about it that I had to collect over the happy course of eating one. Four days later, hers still lingers in a bag on the counter.
Super Chunk Sweets & Treats. 7120 East Sixth Avenue, #19, Scottsdale; 602-736-2383.
Monday to Saturday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Sunday.