Bag a Bunch of Bagels
Simmering rage is one thing if you're a police sergeant with a shady past whose daughter has been kidnapped by a ring of thugs who are in cahoots with your police chief and want you to keep your mouth shut about their arson ring. It's quite another when you're simply looking for breakfast.
Which is why lately I grow ever more concerned when Twin Citians stop to talk about bagels. Once you all seemed to discuss local bagels with simple Upper Midwestern exclamations like, "Aw, shucks, maybe it'll get better one day, those boys do try to boil them some dough loops, but it just ain't in their blood. Hey there, Sven Svensen, you git your head out of that there lutefisk barrel, or we'll starve to death come February!"
Yet now, now it seems that you greet the very topic of bagels with a dispiriting urban cynicism, saying things such as, "Bagels? Did you say bagels? I'll kill you. I'll rip off your head, and use your skull as a to-go cup for my morning half-caf-soy-shade-grown latte with just one grating of fresh nutmeg, my everyday morning treat."
So I set off to sample local bagels. Over the course of a week, I hit nine local bagel shops, in six different municipalities, from Hopkins to Woodbury. I sampled an "everything bagel" immediately at each of them, and also purchased a few bagels to take home and examine with my own onsite, high-tech, super 21st-century, state-of-the-art bagel examination tools, which were not limited to a cutting board and knife, but also included plates and napkins. Here are my conclusions:
St. Paul Bagelry, 1702 Lexington Ave.,
Bagels: Overall, excellent. These are without question the best homegrown bagels in the Twin Cities. Chewy, hefty, idiosyncratic, sturdy, and delicious.
Weight: Hefty, feisty, and just right. A good bagel should be more like Jimmy Durante and less like Rock Hudson, more like a short story and less like a billboard--it shouldn't be bloated and pleasant to people who aren't really paying attention, as seen from a great distance; it should be unique, a little tough, a little strange, the way faces are strange, and life is. St. Paul Bagelry bagels are just that way: Each is unique and obviously handmade, they have a truly robust and resilient crust, a nice interior crumb full of good sized holes and rich-tasting bread.
The house slogan at St. Paul Bagelry is "No pale bagels," which may not seem like a big deal to you, but to me, after seeing bagels that looked like those ghostly fish that dwell on the sea floor, to me, "No pale bagels" sounds the same way "Live free or die" does to a native of New Hampshire.
I hadn't been to the St. Paul Bagelry since it changed hands a year ago, but I was thrilled to discover that this mom-and-pop gem is better than ever.
Extra points: Fantastic cream cheese; again, easily the best in the Twin Cities. Every day the Mancuso family--Mom and Pop Theresa and Randy and manager-son Tom--blend up their own batches of cream cheese, using just-chopped ingredients, like lox, or pimientos, olives, and olive juice. The resulting concoctions taste utterly real, and brought true happiness to this roving critic. Making flavored cream cheese out of cream cheese may seem like faint praise, but it's far from normative in today's sad bagel world: Most corporate bagel chains make their cream cheeses with things like locust bean and guar gums, dehydrated vegetables, and preservatives. Since a dehydrated chive in an MSG and hydrolyzed soy protein bath is to fresh chives in cream cheese as a Slim Jim is to a real steak, I can only weep for the masses.
Offenses against humanity: None, except for the fact that, like the last of an endangered species, the rarity of the true family-owned bagel shop that cares about their bagels says something dark about our world.
Zeno Café, Dessert & Wine Bar, 2919 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.746.4170
800 Lasalle Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.746.1045
Bagels: Zeno air-freights bagels in daily from famed H&H bagels in New York City, and you can buy them anytime for either 95 cents a pop or $9.99 a dozen, at either the Uptown or Downtown location. (And, Eden Prairie, celebrate! You'll be able to get them this September when Zeno opens a location in your ever-ballooning neck of the woods.)
Weight: Exactly right. As heavy, forceful, and ungentle as a thorough argument, H&H bagels are the real New York deal: Substantial, feisty, uncompromising. These lovely loops of old-fashioned goodness are cooked to a gorgeous dark golden color; inside they smell a little of ferment, the way real bread should, from a long, natural period of rising (or proofing) the dough. Eat one and you won't be asking yourself, "Am I eating a Kaiser roll? Is this French toast?" No. You will experience the true essence of the sturdy, urban hunger-killer known as the bagel.
Extra points: Zeno opens at 7:00 a.m., and, if you don't know already, makes some of the best coffee drinks in the Twin Cities. Which is to say, if you zip over there and pick up lattes and bagels for your sweetheart before said sweetie emerges from pillows and slumbers, you will score major points.
Offenses against humanity: None. Except that it's going to be impossible to drive through Uptown once they put up those huge condo towers behind Zeno. What? I know it has nothing to do with Zeno, I'm just saying. I also think things from the Design Within Reach store look a lot better in the catalog then they do in person. Yes, I'm done now.
The Brothers' Deli, 50 S. Sixth St., Skyway Level, Minneapolis; 612.341.8007
Bagels: Brothers' also air-freights bagels in from H&H, so everything I said about Zeno's bagels also holds for Brothers'.
Weight: Excellent, especially if you get your bagel toasted with lox and cream cheese for $5.39, or extra-extra stuffed for $9.09, which grants you an all-access-pass to the pickle bar filled with New York deli classics like pickled beets, three-bean salad, half-sour pickles, and the works.
Extra points: I saw a trio of sexy business blondes, you know the type, with the $300-an-hour colorists and the Tahari suits? Anyhoo, each and every one of these well-Pilates'd beauties was lustily tearing into an overstuffed New York deli sandwich. Is there a secret rebellion brewing against the anorexic twerps of InStyle, and In Touch? Oh Lord, please make it so.
Offenses against humanity: None.
Cecil's Delicatessen, 651 S. Cleveland Ave. S.,
St Paul; 651.698.0334
Bagels: Really awful. I called up St. Paul's most venerable and beloved deli just to check whether they made their own bagels, although I was quite sure they didn't. They do. And I wish I'd never asked. When I visited I got pale, Wonder Bread-like bagels. If you take one between thumb and forefinger, and slowly pinch, your fingers will readily meet and have only a millimeter or two of bagel between them. That just ain't right. They also taste floury and uncooked.
Extra points: Nice blintzes, excellent grilled sandwiches, fresh, hot potato latkes whenever you want them. A St. Paul institution.
Crime against humanity: I feel like I'm kicking puppies, saying something bad about Cecil's. Whatever possessed me to write about bagels, anyway? And all I had to do to not make trouble for myself was shut up and stay home. Will I never learn?
Bruegger's Bagels; multiple locations
Bagels: Good, especially when compared with the other chains. A few years ago when I did my last bagel roundup, I found Bruegger's to be the absolute bottom of the barrel, making bagels I remember as floury pucklike objects. I don't think I'd been there since, but in 2004 the Vermont-based chain went through an ownership change and reinvigorated itself, and it's now much improved.
Weight: Good. The Bruegger's bagels I tried had telltale teensy blisters on the outside, meaning that they were misted with water before baking to give the crust a nice chew, an extra effort that I both recognize and appreciate. They're not as distinct and personality-plus as the St. Paul Bagelry bagels or the H&H imports, but in my roundup I found Bruegger's to be the best of the chain-bagel bagels.
Extra points: Spend as much time in bagel chains as I have, and it becomes clear that these businesses are at war with their product. You can almost hear the focus groups whining, "Bagels are too hard, and they hurt my teeth. I would like them to be more like toaster strudel. Without carbs." Kudos to Bruegger's for making their super-soft non-bagels a different product line: the puffy, pouffy, balloonlike square bagel.
Crime against humanity: What is xanthan? Why is it in so many things, including my tub of Bruegger's onion and chive cream cheese? It sounds like a place Klingons live, or possibly a musical instrument from the Caucasus. Oh, don't tell me xanthan gum is a microbial desiccation-resistant polymer prepared commercially by aerobic submerged fermentation, I can Google things too. I just don't want to.
Chesapeake Bagel Bakery, 7230 Valley Creek Rd., Woodbury; 651.578.1922
Bagels: Puffy, soft, and flaccid.
Extra points: A friend of mine dropped by while I was examining some bagels and, misreading the bag, asked, "What's Cheesy Peak?" at which point I replied: "It's pronounced Cheesy Low." Hoo boy! That was a good one.
Crimes against humanity: Numerous. First, Chesapeake is the number-one bagel source for bagels with glossy frosting and multicolored sprinkles. You could get a chocolate-frosted bagel bite ($.59) that looks like an éclair. You could get a blueberry bagel topped with frosting and purpleish candy doohickeys. Or, if you're completely insane, you can pay $1.89 for a cranberry-orange frosted bagel knot, a Big Mac-sized knot of bready, underdone bagel dough topped with a greasy lid of sugar icing. I did this. It kind of reminded me of getting one of those pans of cinnamon rolls from the grocery store and spreading the icing on a cold pizza crust, and it kind of reminded me of the last time I got shocked by a light fixture and fell off my ladder.
The second major problem at Chesapeake is that far too many bad, cafeteria-trendy ideas from the last 20 years live on here. I mean, don't even think of going to another restaurant on earth when you want a Cordon Bleu melt on a croissant, your date craves a Baja chicken wrap with ranch dressing, and you both want to wash it down with some Cheeseburger Deluxe soup. I think the highlight of my visit was the Fargo-like moment when, at the only other occupied table, a woman suddenly shrieked, "Jeez, you got a lotta friends with problems!" Or, it might have been when I threw out the iced knot.
Einstein Bros. Bagels; multiple locations
Bagels: Good. Second-best of the chain bagels, nice toppings, good brownness, the kind of bagel that's totally acceptable.
Weight: Decent heft, but not so much that you could distinguish an Einstein bagel from another chain bagel by sight.
Extra points: None.
Crime against humanity: Owned by the New World Restaurant Group, which is part of a nearly 700-shop group which includes sister chains Noah's Bagels, Manhattan Bagel, and Chesapeake Bagels. I feel a certain personal anger at Einstein for the crimes of Chesapeake. Hey, Einstein, if you're so smart, how come your sister puts icing on bagels?
Crossroads Delicatessen, 2795 Hedberg Dr.,
Bagels: Gruesome. The day I went to Crossroads, the bagels were of a ghostly, otherworldly paleness. The onions on the onion bagel were white, translucent, and wet. Even though it was early in the morning and they should have been fresh, the bagels smelled strongly of icing, the odor absorbed, I assume, from the frosted treats that were also in the case.
Weight: Like dandelion puffs on the roadside.
Extra points: The best matzo ball soup in the metro can be gotten to go in the deli, a big old two-ball portion for $7.59 is all but guaranteed to bring summer colds to their knees.
Crimes against humanity: The next time I go to Hopkins they're probably going to shoot flaming arrows at my car. If this interferes with my ability to get that matzo ball soup, I am going to kill me.
Big Apple Bagels; multiple locations
Bagels: Overall, not bad. I found Big Apple's bagels to be just chewy enough to be recognizable as a bagel, but nothing worth going too out of your way for.
Extra points: They keep you on your toes, Big Apple does. The last time I visited this chain, a few years back, I thought they had excellent bagels. What a difference a few years makes: When I visited the Maplewood location for this story I found that they are the leaders of the sugar-bagel field, and seem to be functioning these days more as a coffee shop than a bagel store.
Crimes against humanity: Considerable. First, let me tell you about the strawberry bagel, a pink-and-brown bubble that tastes exactly like Strawberry Quik and looks exactly like you can't believe you're not wearing flamingo-tinted glasses. Worse are the chain's premium "Bab's Choice" bagels, like "cinnamon-laced apple pie," "white chocolate swirl" (with a streusel topping), and "blueberry cobbler" (with a crunchy, crumby cobblerlike topping). At first I thought, "Heavens, who is Bab, and does she know that putting a streusel topping on a bagel is both unspeakably tacky, and a nutritional choice sure to lead to grief?" Then I realized that Bab stands for Big Apple Bagels, which explained a lot.
Specifically, right at this very moment, as you may or may not know, all of New York City is scratching their heads as to why their politicians are seeking to replace the city's old slogan with the lame "The World's Second Home." But the people of New York can never understand the answer the way we can: If someone named a white chocolate, swirl-streusel-topped bagel after me, I'd change my name too.
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