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The Best Bagels Are in California (Sorry, New York)

Emily Winston makes her ideal version of a New York bagel, loosely based on the H & H version she remembers eating as a child, at Boichik Bagels in Berkeley, Calif., on March 3, 2021. West Coast bakers are driving a great bagel boom, producing some of the most delicious versions around and finding ways to expand during the pandemic. (Preston Gannaway/The New York Times)

BERKELEY, Calif. — The bagels at Boichik Bagels have the look of Labrador puppies curled up for afternoon naps: soft and pudgy, golden roly-polies (practically made for that old puppy-or-bagel meme).

The bread has a comforting squish — thick but yielding, chewy but not densely so, with a shiny, sweet-and-salty crust and a rich, malty breath that fills up the bag before you even get home.

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.

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.

And it’s not an anomaly. Winston, 43, is part of a West Coast bagel boom, one of many bakers tinkering and excelling with regional styles.

The wood-fired bagels at Daily Driver, and the impressive blocks of butter, have their own fan base. So do the dark, wonderfully chewy bagels at Gjusta, the puffy beauties at Bueller’s Bagels, the hefty sandwiches from Yeastie Boys and the more understated ones from Maury’s.

When Zachary Liporace moved to Los Angeles from New York, he tried every bagel in town. In 2017, when he was working as a caterer, he started a pop-up called Pop’s Bagels, named for his grandfather.

“New York-style is an influence, for sure,” he said, but he still hesitates to use the phrase on his menu. In part, it’s that the term connotes many things to different people, often setting them up for disappointment.

Compared with a New York bagel, “our bagel’s not as dense and chewy,” Liporace, 34, said. “And the exterior is different, because we use deck ovens.”

That exterior is light and wonderfully crackly, with a definitive crunch, and once it’s cool enough to touch, it’s best slathered with the store’s homemade cream cheese, tangy with buttermilk. (For anyone who likes a different kind of finish, he sells the raw, shaped frozen dough to bake at home.)

Like many bakers, Liporace has expanded his business during the pandemic. He opened a location in Culver City in January and is planning a second in Brentwood.

Arielle Skye, 29, started selling small batches of delicious, aggressively crusty bagels on her bicycle, and later found an audience with a wonky cardboard sign every Saturday at the farmers market in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.

The bagels looked like Montreal-style bagels, and I happily waited for open-faced sandwiches, thickly spread with cream cheese and stacked with sliced, ripe tomatoes, even as Skye’s fan base grew and the lines got longer, and slower.

Last October, she and her partner, Chris Moss, opened Courage Bagels in the Virgil Village neighborhood, in the space where Elvia Perez had previously run a bakery called Super Pan.

Nick Beitcher, who started Midnite Bagel as a pop-up inside Tartine Bakery, as seen here, in San Francisco on Feb. 13, 2020. Beitcher now runs his own stand in the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. West Coast bakers are driving a great bagel boom, producing some of the most delicious versions around and finding ways to expand during the pandemic. (Erin Lubin/New York Times)

Perez served the area’s Guatemalan, Mexican and Salvadoran communities for 20 years until the landlord evicted her in 2018. She moved her business to South Central Los Angeles, where Skye and Moss drive every Friday so they can stock her pan dulce in the case at Courage Bagels — a bittersweet relic of the block’s identity, before a gentrifying pattern of rising rents, evictions and shifting tastes.

Buy Perez’s pan dulce if you see it, along with Skye’s smoky poppy-seed bagel, with all its layers of crispness and crunch. And go for the burned everything if you love to lick your fingers and pick up the crispiest, most browned bits of onion and garlic that inevitably shake off a bagel in motion.

Bagels are personal, and everyone holds to her own vision of the ideal.

‘You should taste the grain’

The bread certainly isn’t new to California. Nick Beitcher, 37, grew up on the bagels from Bagel Nosh Deli and New York Bagels in Los Angeles. His father always came home from the gym with a big brown paper bag full of hot bagels, and his family still eats them at their Yom Kippur break-fast.

But the bagels he makes now at his San Francisco business Midnite Bagel almost defy categorization, more influenced by his time as the head baker at Tartine, working in the school of Chad Robertson.

Beitcher’s bagels have a high hydration, and they’re naturally fermented with a young, liquidy sourdough starter, left to develop flavor for about 24 hours.

Beitcher started Midnite Bagel as a pop-up inside Tartine, but during the pandemic, he left and turned to bagels full time. Most days, he’s up and boiling dough by 3 a.m., hopping into his cargo van to make deliveries to homes and coffee shops. He also runs a busy bagel stand at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

He thinks of the bagel, he said, the way he thinks of any good bread: “You should taste the grain being used in the dough. And there should be contrasts — textural contrasts, flavor contrasts.”

Winston, of Boichik, grew up in central New Jersey eating the H&H sesame bagels that her father brought back from Manhattan. She started baking in 2012, not long after the H&H Bagels location on 46th Street closed.

“I was so upset I would never have that bagel again,” Winston said. Though other locations still operate uptown, to many fans, they’re not the same.

In her memory, the H&H bagel was the ideal New York-style bagel. It had a distinct sweetness and a malty perfume. And though some bagel lovers found it too sweet, for Winston, that sweetness was just right. It defined the bread.

“I mean, it’s not a muffin, it’s not a cupcake, it’s a sweet-neutral, which works really well with cream cheese and lox,” she said.

As she developed her recipe, Winston took baking classes and visited bagel stores, particularly in New York. To evaluate each bread, she’d rip it apart and lick the glossy exterior. She was looking for a particular density, maltiness, chew, crust and smell. “I think smell is a really big one,” she said.

The water question

Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who introduced the bagel to lower Manhattan in the early 1900s, defined the general parameters of a New York-style bagel.

The dough relied on a long, cold fermentation — usually overnight. Changes in the temperature and humidity, as well as the hydration of the dough, were all factors in how the flavor and texture developed. The raw rings, traditionally rolled by hand, were boiled briefly, then baked on burlap-wrapped boards.

Water has long been part of New York’s bagel mythology. The city’s tap water is particularly low in magnesium and calcium, which makes it “soft,” in water-speak. But bakers can adjust their dough for a boil in soft or hard water to achieve the desired effect.

“It’s not the water source, it’s the baker,” reads the introduction to bagels in “Modernist Bread,” Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya’s 2017 myth-busting bread book.

Winston uses unfiltered Berkeley tap water. And when she first started baking, she used what she describes as a “crappy, standard electric, total ho-hum not-fancy oven.”

It was a DIY situation, and she built her own bagel boards, baking off a dozen at a time in her home kitchen. As Winston became more serious about it, she obtained a cottage food license and posted about the bread on Facebook. Lines grew in her Alameda kitchen, out the front door, down the street, around the block.

Boichik, decorated simply with family photos, had been open only a few months when the pandemic hit. Winston quickly rethought her business — she pushed to sell wholesale, introduced home delivery, and hired a Shopify developer to build a new website for smoother online ordering.

Now, a socially distanced line dots College Avenue. The bagels, produced in larger quantities, are still fat and chewy and aromatic and malty. But they aren’t replicas of the H&H bagel. They never were.

“I know it’s not exactly the same,” Winston said. “But it pushes that button in my brain that makes me happy.”

Where the Bagels Are

Boichik Bagels, 3170 College Ave., Berkeley, California; 510-858-5189; boichikbagels.com

Courage Bagels, 777 N. Virgil Ave., Los Angeles, 323-828-9963; couragebagels.com

Midnite Bagel, One Ferry Building No. 50, San Francisco, midnitebagel.com

Pop’s Bagels, 8850 Washington Blvd., Culver City, California; 323-903-7481; popsbagelsla.com

c.2021 The New York Times Company

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Editor of The East Bay Express, Associate Editor of Oakland Magazine, and Alameda Magazine, Columnist-In-Residence at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)'s Open Space, Advisory Board Member of Nocturnes Journal of Literary Arts, and regular contributor to several websites and magazines. Miller is the founder of The Afrosurreal Arts Movement through his publication of The Afrosurreal Manifesto in The San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 20, 2009.