Most families have a “food unit” — a simple, reasonably healthy, omnipresent way to plug the food hole during moments when something more thoughtful and / or good-for-us and / or festive can’t be organized. It could be pasta with sauce, or rice with chicken, or noodles and broth, or any number of things from just about anywhere. For me, it has been bagels since my days in elementary school in Madison, Wis. (Editor’s note: This review is unusually autobiographical because the author’s prejudices and experiences are too deeply set to exorcise.)
Madison has a bagel shop called Bagels Forever, which has been making dense, pleasingly chewy, incredibly economical bagels since 1973. I grew up on them, eating them at home on weekends, in school lunches, at off-campus high school lunches (the retail bakery was a few blocks from Madison West), and later at UW Madison, where they were a college-fridge mainstay. After college, in Boston, the choice was between garbage “circular bread” bagels and bagels so passionate to be authentic that their exteriors were nearly bulletproof. For brunches, I baked my own. This meant an overnight rise, the use of malt syrup, and a boil-then-bake method, but the effort was worthwhile.
After moving to New York City, I ran a gamut of well-known places (Ess-a-Bagel, H&H, Tal, etc.) looking for the best, and eventually settled on a Brooklyn shop called Terrace Bagels. In the process, I also discovered the obvious: Even a typical NYC street bagel with a schmear of cream cheese or butter has a lot going for it, namely an exterior with some chew and character, and an interior that is dense and flavorful.
All of this is a run-up to explain that I don’t take bagels lightly and probably qualify as obsessed. And over the years, I’ve gotten fairly well schooled on the local, chain-dominated bagel environment, from the acceptable averageness of Bruegger’s to the fluffy horribleness of Einstein’s to the inconsistent, expensive, and occasionally excellent bagels of Common Roots. Rise Bagels — available intermittently at various markets and pop-ups, at least until their shop opens in the North Loop — are cracking good, and may be the new standard once they are available daily. In the interim (for the past four or five years) I’ve been mail-ordering bagels, four dozen at a time, from Bagels Forever.
St. Paul Bagelry bagels have a local following, but when I first tried them six or seven years ago, I was sent into a brief but serious funk. The shop was dank and depressing, the bagels bready and disappointing. But with the opening of the Bagelry’s second location, a shop at 54th and Nicollet in Minneapolis, it was clearly time to revisit and refresh.
The verdict: Firstly, the Minneapolis shop is quite charming. It’s light, it’s airy, it’s spacious, and a combination of booths and tables offers a lot of opportunities to meet friends or linger over a lox bagel and some coffee. More importantly, the bagels are pretty good. They’ve got a terrific exterior — chewy with a hint of crispness. The interior is disappointing for a classic bagel, as it’s too light, too insubstantial, and too close to white bread to work well for classic applications like a simple cream cheese spread. If you heat it and schmear it and then squeeze it, the soft interior has a tendency to collapse and leak warm cheese onto your fingers.
But the lighter weight and fluffier density actually plays well with more sandwichlike entrees and lets the toppings shine while the bagel hangs back, providing little more than a basic structure and a pleasingly chewy exterior.
Bagel varieties range from the canonical (poppy seed, plain, salt) to the heretical (sun-dried tomato, blueberry, jalapeño cheese), and there is a raft of flavored cream cheese options, all of which seem superfluous to a stubborn, unreconstructed bagel minimalist like me. But that said, if you’re going to offer a variety of creative sandwiches (some breakfast-focused, some lunch-oriented), there’s nothing wrong with having a lot of options at your disposal as you seek to please all palates.
Prices are reasonable — $10.49 for a baker’s dozen, $2.45 for a single bagel with cream cheese, and sandwiches from $4-$7.50. We tried a Lox (with capers, red onions, smoked salmon, and tomato for $7.50) and dug it. It tasted fresh and in balance, and while the fish wasn’t world-altering, it got the job done.
Bagels Forever will ship 48 bagels for about $36 (including shipping and handling), so my source isn’t changing, but I’ll bring my family to St. Paul Bagelry for breakfast and lunch when the opportunity presents itself. It’s a legit bagel shop with a legit product, and damned if it isn’t a cozy place to nosh.
St. Paul Bagelry, 5426 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55419; 612-353-4203