Bagel Taste-Driving

Only one of 'em comes close to the Manhattan product.

My family has been obsessed with bagels ever since my mother, a Mennonite enamored with Jewish food, switched us from Frosted Flakes to Lender’s for breakfast in the antisugar 1970s. During a weekend trip to Chicago, we once took a one-hour detour just to buy a dozen bagels at Kaufman’s (no relation, alas) in the Jewish suburb of Skokie. The four of us finished off the bag in the parking lot. No cream cheese. No toaster oven.

Since I moved to California a decade ago, I’ve heard nothing but whining from East Coast immigrants about how they can’t get a decent bagel west of the Mississippi. It’s something about the water, they always sigh.

So on last week’s weight-gaining trip to Manhattan, my number-one task was to get the skinny on the New York bagel. My host first sent me to his East Village favorite, Ess-a-Bagel, where I fell madly in love with smoked whitefish salad. But the thickly crusted, doughy sesame bagel Ess-a-Bagel’s owner stuffed the fish into didn’t blow me away. So I jumped the 1 to Broadway and 80th to buy some H&H bagels, which most New Yorkers claim are the best of breed. Then I rushed back to my friend’s Fisher-Price-size apartment before the bag cooled.

Folks, they were so good I had to cross Manhattan twice more that week to restock. The bagels had a sweet, dense flesh, and, even after they cooled, they retained a thin, crisp skin that blistered quickly in the toaster. I flew a half-dozen plain back home with me to find which East Bay bagel comes closest to the “real” thing.

After a shopping expedition, I lined up six bagels on my kitchen counter and sampled them one by one. Posh Bagel and Everybody’s Bagel were to H&H as Safeway’s baguettes are to Acme’s. Their shiny skin was a mere lacquer over fluffy white-bread rolls. Despite its bad reputation among the émigré set, the Noah’s plain bagel held up much better. Sure, the insides resembled angel food cake, but they had a distinct, toasty character. Closer in tone to the Manhattanite, the Marin Bagel radiated a sweet yeasty smell. But though the dough had an appealing denseness when fresh, it quickly grew tough.

The winner was the plain bagel from Boogie Woogie Bagel Boy. It lacked the pinch of sugar of H&H’s, but its texture matched the New York bagel crumb for crumb, crust for crust. As an added bonus, Boogie Woogie Bagel Boy imports whitefish salad from Brooklyn. My advice to nostalgia-afflicted New Yorkers: Smear a big dollop of whitefish on one of these toasted bagels, lock yourself in your closet to eat it, and you’ll swear you never made it off the island.

Boogie Woogie has stores at 1281 Gilman St. and 1218 Santa Fe Ave., Berkeley; 1227 Park St., Alameda; and 4301 Piedmont Ave., Oakland.

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