It’s an indisputable fact that New York City is home to the best bagels in the country. Whether it’s the water used, the hundreds of years of history, or some magic spell, it’s nearly impossible to recreate the magic that is a New York bagel anywhere else but there.
But plenty of places come close.
In assembling our list of the country’s best bagels, we used rather strict criteria. The bagels needed to be produced in adherence with the old-fashioned style: that means boiling instead of steaming, hand-rolled instead of machine-rolled (made entirely by hand is preferable), and once the product is finished, it shouldn’t be the size of your head (that’s actually a modern adjustment; they had to be made larger in order to be used as sandwich bread).
Also, a bagel should taste like a bagel. That should go without saying, but many store-bought bagels (and, we’ll admit, most of the ones we get from bagel carts in New York), simply taste like round bread. A bagel has a malty sweetness that takes some nuance to get just right. Also, the crust needs to be an actual crust. If you squeeze it in your hand and it springs right back, that’s not a bagel. When bitten into it should give slightly before the crust crunches away, and the resulting bite should be chewy without being dense, light without being airy, and deeply satisfying.
Also, crazy flavors and cream cheese varieties do not a great bagel make. Your jalapeño-Asiago bagel with bacon-Cheddar-scallion cream cheese is probably delicious, but if your plain bagel with plain cream cheese isn’t up to snuff, you’re not on the list. We also decided against including Montreal-style bagels, which are different creatures entirely.
The single most important quality to keep in mind when it comes to bagels, however, is freshness. Right out of the oven, there’s nothing better than a crusty, chewy bagel. Let it sit around for a few hours, however, and you might as well be eating cardboard. Toasting a bagel should never be necessary when you’re dealing with the country’s best.
We found a few gems in some unexpected places, including two in the Chicago suburbs (but none in the city itself), and there's even one Florida-based mini-chain that claims that the reason their bagels are so good is because they replicate Brooklyn water in-house. And in New York, jumbo-sized gutbusters don't always rule the day.
Without further ado, here are America’s top bagels. To keep the playing field even, the first slideshow has the best bagels outside of New York, and the second counts down New York’s finest.
Best Bagels Outside of New York
Wholy Bagel, Austin, Texas
In 2010, New Jersey native and former bakery supply-salesman Scott Campanozzi, opened Wholy Bagel in one of the least likely places: Austin. His bagels, while of the larger variety, are made by hand, kettle-boiled, and generally are sold out by 1 p.m. every day.
The Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co, Various Locations
Yes, it’s a bit of a gimmick to claim that the secret behind these bagels is that they’re boiled in "real Brooklyn" water, which is replicated in the Delray Beach, Fla. bagel shop’s own water treatment facility so it has the same properties as the motherland. That said, these are still some high-quality bagels, and the fact that owner Steven Fassberg produces his own water is a testament to just how faithful to the Old World style these bagels are. Crunchy on the outside and light on the inside, they’re so popular that there are already many locations, with more in the works.
The Bagel Broker, Los Angeles
Los Angeles is home to plenty of New York transplants, so when a phony bagel is placed before many Angelenos, they can tell the difference just by looking at it. Not so at The Bagel Broker, where bagels have been handmade since 1987 by two generations of the Tarnol family. There are some crazy flavors (jalapeño-Cheddar, etc.) but their plain bagel with lox and schmear is as good as any in New York, and they always seem to be fresh out of the oven. And we hear that they also make a mean bacon, egg, and cheese.
The Bagel Factory, St. Louis
Beginning at 1 a.m. every morning, 20 varieties of bagels are made at The Bagel Factory in the same way that they’ve been made since 1974, getting a boil followed by a quick trip through a ripping hot oven. The finished product is not too big, crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside, and sells for less than $1 each. It’s a small place with nowhere to sit, and it’s cash only, but with bagels this good, no frills are necessary. (Another plus: they don’t toast. If you want it toasted they make you do it yourself. Bagels this fresh don’t need reheating).
Best Bagels Inside New York
For those who are fans of a less-dense bagel, Absolute is the bagel place for you. The cracklin’ crunchy exterior yields to a light, pillowy interior that still retains the right amount of chew. Make sure to drop by early, when they’re at their freshest, and pick up a couple of their mini bagels while you’re at it. No wonder there are lines out the door every morning.
Murray’s has been turning out some of the city’s best bagels since 1996, and it has some unexpected roots. Owner Adam Pomerantz was a vice president at Merrill Lynch before deciding to become a bagel man, and after apprenticing for a traditional wholesale bagel baker in New Jersey and studying every top bagel in the city he opened this charming little shop, named after his father (who would bring bagels home for the family every Thursday night). The secret? Traditional techniques, and the highest-quality ingredients available.
They may be most famous for their bialys, the smaller, onion-filled cousin of the bagel, but the bagels made in this Lower East Side institution are among the best you’ll find in Manhattan. Kossar’s bagels are smallish, hand-rolled and kettle-boiled, dense and chewy, and always fresh. They won’t toast or make you a tuna sandwich, but with bagels this good, any adulteration is unnecessary.
These classic, old-school bagel shops (there are two) are renowned for their huge, crunchy-skinned, chewy bagels. Established in 1976 by Gene and Florence Wilpon and her brother Aaron (their parents were bakers in Austria before coming to the U.S.), these monstrous bagels, and the entire, slightly intimidating Ess-a-Bagel experience (Don’t forget to try the smoked fish and other spreads, and whatever you do, don’t ask them to toast your bagel!) are alone worth the airfare to New York. Try the pumpernickel.
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