Two New York-raised Jewish women living in Madison head to Chicago to render our judgement on the Windy City's bagels. Sure, no one has asked us for this self-appointed quest. Still, this is a quest. I trekked to Chicago with my neighbor Jenny Pressman - born in Manhattan and raised in Queens (just to make her bona fides clear,) - bringing very strong opinions about bagels. While we did not bring the level of rigor to this as a Great British Baking Show, we did set up some controls. I tried a sesame bagel at each bagel shop and Jenny had the everything bagel. We also tried what the owner consider their best.
Chicago has more than 300,000 Jewish people living in the city, and more delis and bagel shops than you can reasonably visit in a single weekend. The odds of us finding a great bagel were high. But would they met the New York standard we were judging by? We went to three old school Jewish deli/bagel shops, one pop-up, and two newly opened sourdough bagel shops.
I can honestly say that each place we visited made a very good bagel. But we all know what food tastes authentic to us. The food of our childhood is our comfort food. For me that is the NY bagel. The bagel was brought to New York City in the late 1800s by Polish Jewish immigrants and the production began in small bakeries, where the bagels were hand-rolled, cold fermented, boiled, and baked. Bagel maker unions were formed and this labor intensive method of making bagels led to a food that was imprinted on anyone raised on these bagels and a belief that any other style of bagel is not correct. So let the judging commence.
Category one: Will I walk half a mile out of my way to buy and eat one of their bagels. Explanation of this category. My family owned a small appliance store on 98th and Broadway in Manhattan. The store was within a block of amazing food-a Korean deli, a Chinese restaurant with dumplings I loved, pizza by the slice. I had no need to walk far to eat well. H & H bagels was 15 blocks away (technically 3/4 of a mile,) and more often than not I would walk the blocks to eat a hot out the oven bagel. Upshot: does this bagel taste amazing enough to put in effort to get to it.
Category two: Would I buy a dozen bagels for a proper bagel spread. Explanation of this category. In its most natural habitat, a bagel is part of a spread. Tuna salad, cream cheese with chives, cucumber, lox, tomato, red onion, white fish. So the bagel needs to be easy to tear with your teeth while it has a stack of food on it, and allows you to keep talking so you don't lose your place in the conversation. The flavor of the bagel can't compete with the spread, and it can't be so dense that you fill up too quickly to have the third half of the bagel since you still hadn't had the tuna and cucumber bagel. Upshot: How (New York) Jewish is this bagel?
New York Bagel & Bialy
Would I walk half a mile out of my way to eat a NY Bagel & Bialy bagel: YES. It is not sufficient to say that walking into this bagel shop scratched an itch for me - it was more like a deep tissue massage working out some serious kinks in my musculature. The look of it, the smell of it, the ongoing sounds of bagel production, the warmth of the owner and her daughter - it really felt like coming home. As for the bagel itself, the exterior texture was top notch, a perfect balance of crisp yet thin and just how I like them. The interior was a bit doughier than I like and not quite as flavorful as I like, but eating this bagel made me very happy.
Would I buy a dozen bagels for a bagel spread: YES. First of all you can buy all the toppings you need for the spread at the shop, the bagels will be newly baked so at most they will just need a few minutes in the oven to be ready to go, and this bagel perfectly lends itself to a pile of toppings.
My favorite tidbit: I am a bit obsessed with Bagel Baker Union 338 that was formed in NYC in the early 1900s. They so completely controlled bagel production that when they went on strike in the 1950s the NYT's declared it 'The Great Bagel Famine of NY.' I was so excited to learn that the men who opened New York Bagel and Bialy in Chicago were once part of that union. I have aspirations to figure out how many bagel stores outside of NYC that opened in the 1960s were started by members of Union 338.
Tilly Bagel Shop. Would I walk half a mile out of my way to eat a Tilly's bagel: YES. This was a very flavorful bagel. Their lemon pepper bagel, the signature bagel of the day, was so good I would walk a mile out of my way to get it. The exterior crust is not what I look for in a bagel, but the interior and flavor was excellent.
Would I buy a dozen bagels for a bagel spread: NO. I need a crisp bagel exterior for a bagel spread. And while delicious, Tilly bagels are sourdough which just is not the traditional bagel flavor I want with a no holds barred bagel spread. It is too much flavor personality for my tuna fish and chive cream cheese.
My favorite tidbit: Hannah and Mike, the owners, are trying to make 'Chicago-style' bagels become a thing. Their point is that Chicago is a proud food town, so why should they make NY-style bagels. While I could probably write a dissertation responding to this question, I really enjoyed their bagels and would definitely endorse sourdough bagels being the official 'Chicago-style' bagels.
R & A Sourdough
Would I walk half a mile out of my way to eat an R & A Sourdough bagel: YES. R & A makes a very tasty bagel and the zaatar bagel was particularly good and worth the trip. I was pleased to see they have a great variety of schmear options for the bagels. While I am not willing to die on this hill, I am willing to injure myself on the hill that some of the more creatively flavored bagels takes them out of the bagel category. For example a rosemary salt bagel while tasty, is more a focaccia than a bagel.
Would I buy a dozen bagels for a bagel spread: NO (cut and paste the answer about Tilly bagel, same sourdough and texture issue.) I need a crisp bagel exterior for a bagel spread. And while delicious, R & A Sourdough bagels are sourdough which just is not the traditional bagel flavor I want with a no holds barred bagel spread. It is too much flavor personality for my tuna fish and chive cream cheese.
Would I walk half a mile out of my way to eat a Kaufman's bagel: YES. The gestalt of this bagel was perfect. I could quibble with the exterior not quite being crisp enough, and the sesame interior could have been a bit chewier...but when all the elements are put together, including the significant benefit of a bagel being very recently baked, it was simply a great bagel. We are still talking about the particular greatness of their pumpernickel bagel.
Would I buy a dozen bagels for a bagel spread: YES. The bagels are top notch, everything you need for a bagel spread is in the store and you could impulse buy a chocolate babka.
My favorite tidbit: As the daughter and granddaughter of a small business owner, I enjoyed learning the origin story of Kaufman's. The deli was started by Kaufman, a Holocaust survivor and it was a gathering place for survivors of the concentration camps. Now owned by Bette Dworkin, she is a fourth generation baker, her great grandfather was a flour miller in Russia.
Would I walk half a mile out of my way to eat a Zeitlen's bagel: YES. The flavor was perfect and the interior texture was quite good. My main quibble was with the exterior texture, it was not as crisp as I want in a bagel. This could be because it was not fresh out of the oven or it could be because of the production techniques, I didn't get to speak to the owner so I don't know for sure. Downside: You could not get a hot bagel or a bagel that came out of the oven in the last couple of hours. This is admittedly a high bar to clear, but that is the height of the bar if you walk into any good bagel store in NY...they are producing bagels that day and a bagel is at its best when it is fresh.
Would I buy a dozen bagels for a bagel spread: YES. This bagel is a perfect vessel for all the bagel spread options. Any self respecting bagel spread host has the oven on low and a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil ready to heat the bagels, so you could crisp up the bagel if wanted.
Emma's Bagel Cafe
Would I walk half a mile out of my way to eat an Emma's bagel: NO. This was a perfectly fine bagel that met the most important standard of a NY-style bagel (boiled,) but the texture and flavor didn't hit the mark for me. If someone showed up at my house with this bagel I would happily eat it, but I'm not making a special trip for it.
Would I buy a dozen bagels for a bagel spread: YES. Put some cream cheese, salty fish and a cucumber on this bagel and it will shine. It is just the right amount of chewy to handle the food you pile on it and you could easily handle an animated conversation while eating and enjoying the bagel spread.