I’m a Midwesterner through and through, but when it comes to bagels, I’m admittedly spoiled. Frequent trips to the East Coast to visit my grandparents in New Jersey and Florida taught me from a young age that bagels don’t belong in the freezer. They should come fresh from the bagel shop and served in halves with cream cheese (don’t even think about buying low-fat), lox, and maybe some tomato and onion if that’s your thing. No funky flavors like cinna-choco-walnut-surprise. No exotic cream cheeses. And definitely no ham and cheese.
So what makes a true New York bagel? Discussion among several former East Coast residents resulted in the following criteria:
- A golden, toothsome crust that exhibits some crunch
- A soft, light, and slightly moist interior
- A flavor bordering on neutral to sweet and malty
- A normal portion size — not one the size of a Frisbee
While we can get all the components for an authentic bagel brunch here in Minnesota, is it possible to get a bagel that lives up to snuff? The Heavy Table decided to put three local bagel establishments to the test, throwing one national chain into the mix for comparison’s sake, too. We gathered samples of the plain variety and served it with plain cream cheese, going with the theory that if a bakery’s plain bagel doesn’t taste good, throwing sesame seeds on top isn’t going to improve it.
St. Paul Bagelry (99 cents each)
In a word: Oy. The St. Paul Bagelry’s plain bagel got an almost universal thumbs down, with several people comparing it to a high-school cafeteria bagel. Its very shiny texture did little to compensate for the lack of chew and synthetic taste. Yes, a bagel should have some pull when you bite into it, but it shouldn’t stick in your teeth for the rest of the day. This is the bagel to skip.
Seven Stars Coffeehouse ($1.50 each)
Dubbed the “Wonder bagel” by one of our tasters for its similarities to the classic sandwich bread, Seven Stars’ version was light on crust and heavy on dough. Bagels should have a clear distinction between crust and interior, both in color and in texture. Instead, this bagel tasted more like a sub-par croissant with its slightly greasy aftertaste. It’s the only kosher-certified bagel of the bunch, but unfortunately, kosher doesn’t always equal quality.
Common Roots Cafe ($1 each)
The closest among the local competitors to hit the mark, Common Roots’ plain bagel was a fine illustration of the “pull” factor that elevates a bagel from wimpy to satisfying. Its neutral flavor makes it the perfect base for any kind of sandwich you desire, from a traditional schmear to all the fixins. But its pale color and slightly damp texture indicated to us that the bagel needed a few more minutes in the oven. If it had been a little more well done, it could have been a contender. But instead…
Bruegger’s (99 cents each)
There is something to be said for chains after all. Surprisingly, Bruegger’s plain bagel (the bagel above has sesame seeds because the plain bagel had already been cut up by the time we began snapping photos) was the clear favorite among our taste-testers, who praised its exemplary crustiness and chewy-but-not-too-chewy interior. With the best flavor among the four bagels sampled, Brugger’s earned an overall thumbs up. How it would compete against New York varieties remains to be seen (Serious Eats didn’t include it its bagel taste test last year), but here in Minnesota, it’ll do the job nicely. Don’t forget the cream cheese!