When I moved from New Jersey to Arizona more than seven years ago, the first thing I noticed was that the water tasted like sewage. I grew up drinking clear, clean, quenching water from New Jersey, and on several occasions, I was spoiled with the delicious water in New York. But Arizona? It was a different beast.
Another thing of note – which at the time seemed unrelated – was I had not really eaten a good bagel in Arizona. I knew they had to exist somewhere in the state. On the East Coast, finding a good bagel is effortless. Was it really “something in the water,” as I kept hearing people say?
Were these two things in fact related? How important is the water in a good bagel? I went to find out by visiting 11 bagel spots in the Valley.
Making a good bagel begins with the dough, but how do you make the dough? Bagel-makers have their own recipes, but one common denominator in all recipes, is water. Most makers use some sort of water filtration system. The dough can be perfect, but if the water is bad, the bagel will be, too.
If you were to make dough with unfiltered tap water, instead of filtered or softened water, you would taste the difference. This is especially clear in Phoenix, where the water is uniquely hard.
Water hardness is a measure of calcium and magnesium ions in the water. Water chemists measure them in parts per million. According to the Water Quality Association, soft water has between zero and 60 parts of calcium and magnesium per million. Moderate water has between 60 and 120 parts per million, hard water 120 to 180, and very hard water 180 parts per million and up.
The water in Phoenix is off the charts — between 205 and 377 parts per million. For comparison, New York City water is on average 17.1 parts per million.
It's hard to pin down a single reason Phoenix water tastes so funky — and why this water seems so detrimental to the quality of its bagels.
Phoenix gets 95 percent of its water from the Salt, Verde, and Colorado rivers. The city says the odd taste of its water comes from "minerals and algae that collect in the canals" that transport water to water treatment plants. Although the algae is removed when water is treated, it says, "much like a bouquet of roses that has not been in a room for hours, you still may be able to smell it." Meanwhile, the minerals, including calcium and magnesium, originate from the soil that the water touches.
But how does this all play into bagels? To make the ideal dough, you want low traces of calcium and magnesium, which you’ll get with softer water. If the water is too hard, like it is in Phoenix, the minerals will affect the gluten in the dough, making it really tough. If the water is too soft, the dough could be too goopy.
So, if you're stuck using Phoenix water, using a water softener is really your best bet to making a great bagel. But this does not mean the bagels will taste like the ones in New York City.
There are different minerals in that water from the water we have in Arizona. There is a bagel place in Gilbert called Bongiorno Bagels that replicates New York City water. The website states, "At Bongiorno Bagels, we make sure to represent our home-state right, by using The New York Watermaker in our process. We start off by kettle-boiling the dough, and getting that perfectly balanced crispy, chewy, texture by finishing it off in our 30-year-old revolving-deck oven."
The New York Watermaker is exactly what it sounds like. See its site for more information.
Another important step in making a good bagel is letting the dough rest. Once the dough is made and rolled either by hand or by machine into a bagel shape, it should sit in a cooler for some time. Bagel experts say they should sit for at least 24 hours, but no more than 72. In this process, known as proofing, the yeast ferments and releases all of the different flavors that are essential to creating that perfect texture and flavor.
Amy Thomas, the manager of Wildflower Bread Company in Arcadia Commons, thinks the water makes or breaks the bagels.
“If you don’t use a filter, the bagel will be bad,” Thomas says.
You will find Wildflower bagels at several restaurants around metro Phoenix (see our list below).
Thomas says their bagel dough sits in the proofer for a few hours. Other places will proof multiple times. Once the bagels are done proofing, the best ones will make one final stop before the oven: bagel bath time. Most bagel masters will tell you the bagels should go for a boil anywhere between 30 seconds and 3 minutes, although if you talk to Rob Sterkenburg, the manager of The Nosh Cafe in Ahwatukee, he will tell you differently.
“I like [the bagels] better when they go in the steam oven,” Sterkenburg says. He says Nosh sometimes does boil bagels upon request, but steaming them is what he dubs “West Coast-style.”
Sterkenburg also thinks water is overrated in bagel-making. He says that when he eats bagels, he can't tell what kind of water was used. Yet he still uses filters for the water at Nosh.
When you boil bagels, it seals in the flavor, keeps the interior chewy, and creates the golden-hued skin that defines the essence of a bagel.
Boiling with malt, as they do “back East,” helps gives the bagel their flavor and makes their exterior even shinier. The only places in Phoenix to do this expertly are The Bagel Man and the now-closed Odelay. Both places filter and soften their water, but one owner does not think water is important to the process.
“It’s a bunch of propaganda. It has nothing to do with it,” says The Bagel Man’s owner, Kal Salih. He may say water isn’t important, but everything he does still translates to water being an essential part of the process.
Ryan Probst, the former owner of Odelay, disagrees. “Water is important because it needs to be clean water,” Probst says. He, of course, does not mean “clean” as the opposite of dirty, but more that it’s not straight from the tap. Probst uses a water softener and double filters his water.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Everything Bagels in central Phoenix. When I got there, all signs seemed promising for their bagel-making – boiled in water, proofed for 16 or more hours – until they admitted that they use tap water, which explained why their fresh bagels seemed stale. The one I tried was so tough I could not bite through it.
That was the first bagel I could not eat in its entirety. Unfortunately, it was not the last. That honor goes to Phoenix Public Market Cafe.
It's possible that the bagel I was given had sat out for too long. It was rock solid and made a loud “thunk” as it hit the bottom of my trash can.
It took me seven years to realize New York and Phoenix bagels will never taste the same. But it's still possible to find a decent bagel in metro Phoenix – if a bagel maker uses the right ingredients, has enough experience, and doesn’t use shit water.
Here is my definitive ranking of 11 bagel places I tested:
Tier V (a.k.a. don't eat these bagels):
Phoenix Public Market Cafe14 East Pierce Street
I had heard several good things about their bagels, so my expectations may have been a little high for this place. But the bagel did not come anywhere close at Phoenix Public Market Cafe.
It’s possible this bagel suffered from sitting out in the open too long, but that does not make up for the fact it was rock solid and hurt my teeth to take a bite. After two, I gave up. Plus, how are you going to make me spread my own cream cheese after waiting 20 minutes for you to bring me the bagel? My go-to used to be their Roosevelt Row bagel. which comes open-faced with half avocado spread, half hummus. The spreads were acceptable, but not the bagel itself. (Nobody could be reached for comment on how the bagels were made at the time.)
Bagels I ate: plain, Roosevelt Row
Tier IV (the "meh" bagels):
New York Bagels ‘N Bialys10320 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
In contrast to the Phoenix Public Market Cafe, I had only heard bad things about this spot, so my bar was set insanely low. It cleared that bar, albeit barely. They use filtered water, boil their bagels in a kettle, and bake them, as I learned to expect from a place with "New York" in its name, as with New York Bagels ‘N Bialys. The bagel was chewy, but the first bite was very light, and the bagel had zero flavor. Plus, it was the size of a bagel bite. Make bigger bagels.
Bagel I ate: plain
Ollie Vaughn’s1526 East McDowell Road
This place does not have plain bagel options. If you want a bagel at Ollie Vaughn’s, you're getting an everything bagel with cream cheese, lox, red onion, and capers, which will set you back $12. If you ask for just the bagel and cream cheese, you'd still pay $7.
So I took the salmon option and proceeded to wait 20 minutes. Taking my first bite of this tiny bagel sandwich made me instantly realize why they don’t sell it as just a regular bagel – it’s only as good as the toppings that come with it. The bagel itself was hard through and through.
The restaurant owner, Lindsey Magee, did tell me she thinks water is important in the bagel-making, but also thinks the mood of the person making it is a factor in bagels and other baked goods. Magee said if she sees somebody is unhappy or having a bad day, she will take them off of what they are making so the item can be made with “the right attitude.” She also told me that the tiny bagel I ate was from “a bad batch” and that I should come back, but when I found out they don’t actually make their bagels in house, I opted to go to their source (Wildflower) to find out for myself.
Bagel I ate: bagel and lox
Wildflower Bread CompanyMultiple Valley Locations
The interior of the bagels at Wildflower Bread Company were too pillowy soft. The sesame bagel had a better chew to it than the plain. The cinnamon raisin bagel had very minimum cinnamon flavor, but the raisins brought it together better. A good bagel should be fresh and chewy untoasted, but these bagels needed to be toasted.
Bagels I ate: sesame, plain, and cinnamon raisin
Tier III (pleasant):
Back East Bagels1628 East Southern Avenue, Tempe
There are some places in the Valley that rely too much on trying to be as good as New York. If you make a good bagel, that's all that should matter. Not making the name of your store something to reflect New York City or "back east." Back East Bagels does the opposite of both. The bagel is incredibly soft, too chewy, and goopy. It's a case of the water they use being too soft as described above. No bagel needs to be toasted; this one did. Anytime a bagel gets toasted, it gets a little bit ruined. On a whim, I decided to get something different at this place. I still got my usual plain bagel with plain cream cheese, but opted to try their chili habanero bagel as well. It was a mistake. It had a nice kick, which I love being an avid spicy food fan, but if you're going to do a flavored bagel, you have to maintain a balance between added flavor and traditional bagel taste. The spice factor completely overpowered the bagel flavor; there was no bagel essence. At least the plain was still edible.
Bagels I ate: plain, chili habanero
Chompie'sMultiple Valley Locations
This is by no means a bad bagel. It's solid. You know exactly what you are getting when you visit a Chompie's location, or pick up bagels from your local Fry's. The exterior texture is a little soft, but the interior is appropriately dense. It was the appropriate amount of chewy, but tasted too bland. Pretty good for a local chain.
Bagels I ate: plain, egg
Super Chunk Sweets & Treats7120 East Sixth Avenue, Scottsdale
It says a lot about a place that when you show up an hour before closing, there's one bagel left — cheddar cornmeal — and it's actually pretty good. (My goal was to eat a plain bagel with cream cheese at every spot I visited.) The cheese plus bagel reminded me of eating a grilled cheese, in a good way.
However, the cornmeal was excessive, coating the top and bottom of the bagel. No bagel should be this crunchy. The bagel was also dry, and eating it with cream cheese was definitely necessary.
Super Chunk uses a water softener, and it boils and bakes its bagels. I would eat there again – preferably when there are more bagel options.
Bagel I ate: cheddar cornmeal
Tier II (really good):
Bongiorno Bagels3107 South Gilbert Road Unit 101, Gilbert
This place was unique. They have several bagel options, which is standard, but they also had 10 different flavors of cream cheese – including Oreo, birthday cake, crumb cake, and roasted garlic. I was intrigued and will have to go back to taste them all. For this, I just stuck to my plain bagel, not toasted, with plain cream cheese, and it was delightful. They use replicated New York City water, which I think is a tad extra. On the surface, this was a perfect bagel, and the only thing keeping it from making the top tier is the other bagel I ate – egg. I have not found a good egg bagel in Arizona still. I grew up eating these and wish somebody in the Grand Canyon State could replicate this sentimental delicacy. When you're at Bongiorno, you can't get more New York.
Bagel I ate: plain
The Nosh Cafe4855 East Warner Road, Suite B12
I'm not quite sure what is going on with bagel shops in the Warner-Elliot circle, but they have their shit figured out. Between this spot and the two in Tier I, you won't find a better bagel area in the Valley. Nosh is an interesting spot because they opt to steam their bagels (Einstein Bros. does the same), but they will boil upon request.
Nosh might be the only place in the Valley that opts for a West Coast rather than New York-style bagel, and whatever they are doing works. This was a tasty bagel. You could taste the dense dough with every bite. Their Works bagel had the best flavor and tasted the most fresh. Some places overdo it with the everything seasoning; this is not one of those places. They could maybe tone down on the cream cheese though – this seems to be a recurring theme in Arizona.
Bagels I ate: cheese, cinnamon sugar, plain, and works (everything)
Tier I (incredible):
The Bagel Man5035 East Elliot Road
This was a fucking bagel. It looked perfect. It tasted fresh right out of the oven, as every bagel should. The Bagel Man is the place to visit if you're looking for a bagel comparable to those you get in New York. There are several places where you know what you're about to eat is going to be amazing when there is a line to order at any time you go. On Saturday mornings the line will be out the door. On a Tuesday morning between 9 and 10 a.m., you'll still see 15 to 20 customers waiting to chow down on some delicious bagels. Plus bonus points for having the friendliest staff. If I had to fault them for anything, it would be the mountains of schmear coating the open-faced bagel, but you can probably ask them to tone it down.
Bagels I ate: plain, everything
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Hot Bagels & Deli6030 West Behrend Drive, #115, Glendale
Out in the west Valley one bagel place reigns supreme; this is it. There are three locations, and no other good bagel places until you hit Phoenix. Hot Bagels boils and bakes the dough to perfection. It was fresh and warm like sheets right out of a dryer. The first bite brings pure bliss into your life. When eating this bagel, for even just a moment, nothing else matters. It's just you, the bagel, and the dozens of patrons ready to experience bagel heaven.
Bagel I ate: plain
Editor's note: This story was originally published on December 10, 2018. It was updated on January 7, 2020. New Times fellow Elizabeth Whitman contributed to the reporting.