It's hilarious and pathetic to recall my notion of a bagel when I was a kid: rock-hard frozen rolls, usually six to a bag, that needed to be nuked or toasted to be edible. To actually be palatable, they needed to soak up a good slathering of butter or cream cheese. They came in flavors like cinnamon-raisin and blueberry, and for the longest time, I thought of them as boring breakfast pastries. (Little did I know that those are "gentile bagels," as one of my friends jokingly calls them.)
But when college rolled around, I graduated from raisin to garlic, and life in New York City gave me a steep learning curve. I figured out what real bagels were savory sustenance, both chewy and crunchy by eating them almost daily, for any given meal. I even had multiple-bagel days. No matter how broke I was, I never went hungry as long as I had 60 cents in my pocket.
These days, I still think of a bagel as a meal unto itself, especially when I'm in a hurry or short on cash. But convenience isn't everything. If that were the case, there'd be no reason to venture beyond the closest Einstein Bros. Bagels. Yeah, people line up for their goods. But their two-step steam-baking process results in a roll that's chewier overall than the New York-style specimen, lacking the firm, crisp crust that you get from the traditional process of boiling the dough before baking it in a stone hearth. (Not all chains are alike, though: Bruegger's does kettle-boil its bagels.)
Prices (baker's dozen):
New York Bagels 'N Bialys: $6.99
DJ's Bagel Cafe: $6.77
Back East Bagels: $6.99
In search of that authentic taste and texture, I tried plain bagels (completely unadorned), as well as garlic bagels (toasted, with cream cheese) at some of the Valley's best local bakeries.
My findings, in a nutshell? Forget a ticket to JFK and just hop in your car.
Chompies, 3202 East Greenway Road, Phoenix, 602-971-8010, www.chompies.com.
Ex-New Yorkers will feel right at home here, and not just because of the colorful murals of Big Apple icons or the long glass bakery case filled with Danishes and black and white cookies. The bagels at Chompie's are made the old-fashioned way boiled, then baked on a hearth and they taste like it, too.
Maybe it's because owners Lou and Lovey Borenstein, their sons Mark and Neil, and their daughter Wendy Tucker moved here from Queens before setting up shop in 1979. Tucker calls their bagels "true New York-style," and Neil Borenstein backs up the claim; he says they even use a special de-ionized water to mimic the softness of New York City water, which bagel purists consider a key ingredient. Chompie's big roundies have a glossy, golden crust that keeps the inside moist. Toasted, they're nicely crisp, not tough, and the garlic variety has a healthy coating of chopped garlic and cornmeal. Around the Valley, Chompie's popularity is no doubt boosted by its availability; along with two other retail locations, the company supplies major supermarkets like Fry's, Sprouts, Bashas', and Safeway.
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New York Bagels 'N Bialys, 6990 East Shea Boulevard, Scottsdale, 480-991-3034, www.nybagelsnbialys.com.
It speaks volumes that New York Bagels 'N Bialys is good enough to stock such institutions as Katz Deli and Scott's Generations (not to mention all AJ's stores). Owner Ruth Leatherman, who bought the 17-year-old business a year ago, says she's loyal to the traditional boil-and-bake method because it makes the bagels crispier on the outside. Although I wouldn't say the compact, plain bagels here have much in the way of crispness, their texture is just perfect for toasting. The thick, golden crust speckled on both sides in the garlic version lends itself to a nice crispness, verging on a crunch. Meanwhile, the dense interior has a richer malt flavor than most.
Karsh's Bakery, 5555 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 602-264-4874, www.karshsbakery.com.
This unpretentious, old-fashioned bakery, currently owned by Dereese and Wayne Kindig, has been around since the 1960s, and bagels share the spotlight with fresh breads, rows of pastries, and piles of cookies. Karsh's doesn't boil its bagels, but it does use kosher ingredients. Bagels here have a firm, golden, bubble-free crust that's thicker on top than most others, and dusted with cornmeal on the bottom. Inside, the texture is lighter and breadier, with a touch of sweetness purists will not approve. But still, these have more character than the ubiquitous chain bagels. I don't recommend them plain; throw them in the toaster oven and make sure you have cream cheese on hand.
DJ's Bagel Cafe, 13693 North Fountain Hills Boulevard, Fountain Hills, 480-816-4155.
"We make a classic New York water bagel," says owner Darryl Levin, who opened this sunny little bagel and sandwich shop with Jeff Jelling in 1997. He says the perfect bagel should be crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside. And indeed, these bagels are crisp, a bit bubbly on the bottom, and doughy inside pretty similar to Chompie's, whether toasted or not. The "Very Garlic" bagel does need a more generous amount of topping to live up to its name, but other than that, no complaints. (Well, it's also a hike from central Phoenix to DJ's, but it's a beautiful drive through rolling hills of saguaro and luxury homes, with a worthwhile reward.)
Back East Bagels, 1628 East Southern Avenue, Suite 2, Tempe, 480-491-4222.
Like other bagel shop owners, Back East Bagels' Mark Staats name-drops Einstein's in conversation. "I'd be more than happy to have the business of their slowest place," he says, laughing. His charming strip-mall cafe has been around more than 11 years, and he says word of mouth has been the key to his success. No wonder. The plain bagel here is the best-looking in town, a joy to eat on its own. With a shiny, deep tawny surface and a yeasty, doughy middle, it's almost like a fresh soft pretzel. The crust is somewhat thin but sturdy, and when toasted, the result is simultaneously crisp and chewy. Garlic bagels here have a nice amount of topping, too. Really, these taste like good ones from New York, and I'm stunned when Staats tells me he uses a steam-injected oven. While he still has the kettle from the old days, he insists the secret to his bagels isn't in the baking but the dough recipe. "My New York customers love them," he says. "Try 'em and you won't be able to tell the difference."