Breaking: California is the new bagel capital of America [Updated]

A bagel and lox sandwich
This bagel is from California
Photo: Smith Collection/Gado (Getty Images)
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Update, March 9, 2021: New Yorkers, I’m sorry for repeating news that is bound to make your heads explode yet again, but the rest of the world needs to know: yesterday, your very own paper of record, The New York Times, reported that California is the new bagel capital of America.

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Tejal Rao, the food section’s West Coast correspondent, begins with a poetic description of the bagels at Boichik Bagels in Berkeley (one of which is pictured above). “This is where the writer (me), a former resident of New York City (Brooklyn), smugly tells you that these bagels are good for California bagels, excellent by West Coast standards,” she writes. “But no, to be clear: Emily Winston’s bagels are some of the finest New York-style bagels I’ve ever tasted. They just happen to be made in Berkeley.”

Rao goes on to profile several other bagel-makers in LA and the Bay Area (apparently if you’re desperate for a good bagel in, say, Sacramento, you’re out of luck) who have been riffing off the classic New York style, baking bagels with a lighter crumb or—gasp—sourdough, served with artisanal cream cheese and fresh tomatoes.

The comments section exploded, naturally, with passionate defenses of the New York bagel, eager promotion of other great California bagel places, complaints about the lack of decent bagels in [insert writer’s location here], and, from Canada, unapologetic assertions that nothing compares to a Montreal bagel.

And also some words of comfort: “Don’t fret, NYC, the ‘worst’ bagel in NYC is better than the round bread with a hole in it that passes for a bagel almost everywhere else,” wrote one commenter from St. Louis. And they should know because St. Louis is one of the most bagel-deprived cities in America.

Meanwhile, bagel Twitter (which I am now happy to know exists) also chimed in.

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The NYT bagel piece reminded me of my favorite NYC food superiority story,” wrote Jason Diamond, a writer in New York who spent his formative years in Chicago, “when my dad told me the only good lox he had outside of NYC was at my bris in Chicago and my grandpa goes ‘You sure that was lox?’

Original post, March 8, 2021: One of the pleasures of living in New York, as any New Yorker will tell you, is the prevalence of great bagel shops. Everywhere you go, you can find fresh bagels, schmeared with cream cheese measured out in ice cream scoops. In the dead of winter, you can buy a hot bagel and use it to keep your hands warm on the subway ride home. People will loudly defend their personal favorite bagel shop and insult others for the most minute of differences, but you know what? They’re all great. The city is indeed a bagel lover’s paradise.

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New Yorkers also won’t hesitate to tell you that you cannot find a decent bagel anywhere else in the world. David Landsel, a writer for Food & Wine, set out to prove this conventional wisdom wrong. New Yorkers, Landsel argues, had become complacent. They were taking less care with their bagels than they had in the Good Old Days. “Your average New York bagel started to look more like a pale, over-inflated tire. City and suburb alike were inundated with these bloated monstrosities, strangely sweet and frustratingly doughy, too often made with the cheapest flours and, worse still, those dreaded dough conditioners. These were commodity-grade gut bombs, designed to keep you docile until lunchtime, only slightly better than the bread rings that were being passed off as bagels in the rest of America.” Worst of all, people were ordering their bagels with the insides scooped out.

One morning, on a trip to northern California, Landsel had a bagel epiphany. Or rather, he realized the wood-fired bagel he was eating that sunny winter morning was just as good as any bagel from the glory days of New York bagel making. Was it possible, he wondered, that there were great bagels beyond the confines of Hudson River? Eureka! It was!

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And so Landsel embarked on a decade-long quest to find the best bagels in these United States. He paid no attention to whether they were New York-style or Montreal-style (“Being blindly pro-New York does nobody any favors”). Instead he looked for quality.

Predictably, New York (primarily Manhattan and Brooklyn) provided the greatest number of entries on his list. So did Los Angeles, full of expat New Yorkers who yearn passionately for the food of the old country. But he also found great bagels in Biddeford, Maine, and Fargo, North Dakota, and Berea, Kentucky.

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He did not find any great bagels in St. Louis. I lived there for more than five years and couldn’t find any great bagels there, either, until I resorted to making my own, so I feel somewhat vindicated.

Anyway, the way I see it, the moral to this story is this: if you don’t have to live in New York to get a great bagel, and there is no reason why anyone anywhere should not have access to great bagels. America, get baking and boiling! Or use Landsel’s list as a guide to the greatest, carbiest road trip you’ll ever take.

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Associate editor of The Takeout. Chicagoan. Owned by dog.

DISCUSSION

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Tony Chachere, Attorney at Law

Surprised that Humble Bagel in New Orleans isn’t listed here – those are some good bagels, y’all. But living in St. Louis I can confirm: there are no good, NY-style bagels, or at least I can’t find them.

Sidenote: I grew up here and eventually moved back from New Orleans a few years ago. I only ever heard of “bread-sliced” bagels when that whole thing happened a couple years ago. I genuinely had never seen it until that happened, and still am ashamed of my fellow St. Louisans for defending it. I could at least understand defending Imo’s (not for me, but whatever), but this? No.