A longtime friend and fellow East Coast Transplant recently remarked that Phoenix is "a bagel wasteland." According to him, the best way to get a decent bagel here is to have it flown in from New York.
It can't possibly be that difficult to find a tasty bagel. Or can it? This past weekend, my friend and I trekked out to the farthest reaches of our territory in search of a bagel that would live up to our cream-cheese-of-the-crop standards. We were rewarded with one closed shop, another that moved to BFE, one that was out of bagels and finally, two worthy contenders. Oy vey!
In One Corner: Bagel Nosh/Nosh Bagelry
4855 E Warner Rd. in Phoenix
After spending two hours trekking out to the apparently defunct New York Bagel Cafe in Chandler, Sunrise Bagel Cafe in Gilbert to discover a nail salon in its place (Sunrise moved out to Signal Butte) and Kokobelli Bagel Cafe near Superstition Springs which had no everything bagels, we headed west by word-of-mouth to the independently owned Bagel Nosh at 48th St & Warner in Southeast Phoenix.
It's a bright, sunny little shop in a large grocery store strip mall, with a handful of inside tables and sport-themed wall murals that made me feel a little guilty about packing on the carbs. Who knows? Maybe the swinging golfer and racing cyclist were intended to remind diners how to work off breakfast.
The bagel arrived in what seemed like nanoseconds, lightly toasted and open-faced with a thin coating of plain cream cheese. It seemed paler than most of the everything bagels I've had. But when I bit in, the doughy circle yielded unexpected flavor. "Ooh, salty," mouthed my friend as he reached for a drink.
There was a strong undertone of salt and garlic, with a slightly earthy, peppery finish from the poppy seeds. The texture was decent -- a little chewy and not as crisp as I like, but still tasty. The schmear was perfectly applied, just enough thickness to be a blank canvas for the art and avoid squishing out of the bagel in a gloppy puddle.
The best part was that it didn't go down as heavy as a lead brick, a problem with a lot of local bagels. All in all, a good bagel experience. Was it as good as the bagels back home? Well...
In the Other Corner: Back East Bagels
1628 East Southern Ave. in Tempe
Back East gets ambience points because that's exactly what a real neighborhood bagel place should look like, at least by New York standards. None of this modern, whitewashed Einstein Bros. crap for us. Back East also has an awesome chalkboard menu of sandwiches, schmear combos and breakfast sandwiches like the scorching Breakfast August 22, 1988 with bacon and hot chile sauce.
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Again, we ordered up an everything bagel with plain cream cheese, which arrived open-faced in a plastic basket. "This is a nice crisp bagel," remarked my dining companion. "It has just the right amount of chewiness." Traitor.
Ok, he had a point. Despite the lack of boiling (grumble), the bagel was thick and chewy, with a slightly crisp and browned outside. The dominant flavor here was rye, owing to the caraway seeds interspersed among the poppy fields.
Not my favorite flavor, but a good hat-tip to New York delis known for their delicious rye. Back East's schmear was a little more plentiful than The Nosh's, leaving a little glob of cream cheese to ooze through the center of the hole in true New York fashion. This was a much heavier bagel -- not only heavier in texture, but heavier on the toppings.
The Winner: While I liked the crispness and firmer texture of Back East's bagel, The Nosh edges them out by a hair with the delicious garlic salt flavor of The Works.