Bixby's Bagel Co.
200 Sixth St. S. (Pillsbury Center), Minneapolis; (612) 630-2766
Hours: 6:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday
607 Marquette Ave. S. (Firstar Bank Building, skyway level), Minneapolis;
Hours: 7:00 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday
Big Apple Bagel
849 University Ave. W., St. Paul;
Hours: 7:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m. Monday-Friday; 7:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. Saturday; 7:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. Sunday
Big Apple has seven other local locations; check www.babholdings.com for details
True Brew Bagel Bar
5121 Gus Young Ln., Edina; (952) 929-8900
Hours: 6:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m. Monday-Friday; 7:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Bagelman's New York Bakery and Deli
825 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis;
Hours: 6:30 a.m.-6:00 p.m. Monday-Friday
1500 W. Lake St., Minneapolis;
Hours: 6:00 a.m.- 9:00 p.m. Monday-Friday; 6:30 a.m.- 9:00 p.m. Saturday; 6:30 a.m.-8:00 p.m. Sunday
Bruegger's has 33 other Minnesota locations; check www.brueggersmn.com for details
Einstein Brothers Bagels
1513 W. Lake St., Minneapolis;
Hours: 6:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Monday-Friday; 7:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Einstein has nine other nearby locations; check www.einsteinbros.com for details
It was a dark day, a cold day, and a group earnest and serious, if somewhat anemic, was gathered around a large table in a windowless conference room, discussing matters of the utmost urgency. Suddenly, without warning, the conversation veered to a topic of little apparent relevance: Twin Cities bagels. Suddenly, the room erupted in the most sardonic chuckling, bitter cackling, and dark, knee-slapping hilarity that I had ever seen outside of France. Were we suddenly transported to France? A look outside at the gray snow dashed my hopes. But are local bagels really as bad as all that? I resolved to find out.
I set out with a list of bagelries and my ace in the hole: I knew from long toil in these streets that Brother's Delicatessen imports their bagels daily from famed New York bagelry H&H Bagels--a ringer! If all the local bagels really are bad, at least I'd have a fail-safe to recommend. I quickly drafted ground rules, so as to compare apples to apples, so to speak. The competition would be held in three rings, arenas I decided are the essence of bagelness: First, an everything bagel, unadulterated. This is a bagel made with a combination of most of the traditional savory toppings--onion, garlic, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, and sometimes salt. Next a garlic bagel, topped with lox, cream cheese, and red onion, a preparation universally acknowledged as the highest form of bagel, and, of course, a small cup of coffee.
What? Already you object? You wonder about blueberry bagels, banana bagels, and frosted cinnamon bagels with cappuccino cream cheese (not joking)? I say fie to your abominations. If you wish to read of cranberry-orange cream cheese on a chocolate chip bagel my advice to you is to go suck on a bottle of syrup as you waddle over to a box that holds one of our local dailies: This is not that review! I am not that girl. Just because people want to eat deep-fried baby seals doesn't mean I have to review them.
Crabby? Me? Well, it didn't start out that way. It started at the Uptown Einstein Bros. Bagels, which I've always dismissed as a sort of oddly accessorized would-be hipster of a place. Those bagel-Zelig pictures on the wall are creepy. Why are bagels inserted into old-timey photos of flappers and ice wagons? Is this mirth?
On closer viewing, I grew to like Einstein: Earth tones, wood, and steel dominate the space, and the lighting is so varied in intensity and design that it feels like a place, not a corporate vestibule. Plus they've got big, spread-the-newspaper-out tables, and everybody was rocking out to light, modern, contemporary smart-rock: Indigo Girls and a shmeer!
I got what I was gonna get: 65 cents for the everything, $5.49 for the garlic bagel with "N.Y. Lox and a shmeer," $1.25 for a small coffee. The bagel itself was soft and lightly chewy and smelled pleasantly of wheat. While it lacked the smooth, almost glazed crust of the best bagels, and while it had the distinction of being the only bagel I tried that had a noticeable bottom crust of cornmeal, overall I was pleasantly surprised. The coffee was perfect mellow morning stuff, not too acidic, not over-roasted; a rare find. The bagel with lox came open-faced--the only one that would--with cream cheese on both sides of the bagel, some awful cold-winter tomato that was easily cast off, red onion, and a whole bunch of capers in the middle. Capers? A little country-club, but tasty nonetheless.
Next, I dodged traffic with an across-the-street sprint to the Uptown Bruegger's. Going from Einstein to Bruegger's is time-warpy: Bruegger's, with its cheaper metal chairs, mauve and dusky turquoise paint scheme, and uncomplicated lighting seemed very Michael Jackson's the King of Pop! U.S. Out of Nicaragua!, if you know what I mean. Now, before I get too far into this, I want you to know that I know that you all have devised your own, patented favorite Bruegger's sandwich, and I will not take that away from you. Simply, I am here to judge the inherent bagelness of Bruegger's bagels, not their soup or affordability or closeness to your office. A single bagel ran 65 cents; smoked salmon and cream cheese on a bagel, $4.59; a small coffee, $1.09.
The verdict? Holy hockey pucks, was this bad. The bagel skin was all weird and blister-pocked, the inside as dense and gluey as oatmeal. There were almost no visible air pockets in the bagel; usually there are quite a few, ranging in size from pinhead to pea, signs of yeast working its magic in dough. The lox had a grainy texture I associate with freezing, and the coffee was bitter and burned.
Onward! Into the doughy heart of bagel country: downtown Minneapolis. First stop, Brother's. (Located in a particularly unglamorous spot in the skyway system, straight out the south side of the skyway that goes through the Norwest Tower. Or is it the Wells Fargo Tower now? And why is this whole town suddenly festooned with horsie-carriage logos? Aren't we the state where people hide out in the swamps to rob the horsie-carriages? Someone, please, alert the James Younger gang to our current peril.) The famed H&H bagels were positioned unceremoniously on a metal tray hidden in the shadow of some good-looking bundt-cake slices, and the nice lady behind the counter helped me figure out what was left. I was forced to vary my routine, getting an everything bagel, 60 cents, and an onion bagel with lox and cream cheese ($5.95, but it came with a side of coleslaw!), as well as a small, watery coffee for $1.20. There it was, the very image of a model bagel. Tug on a chunk of the glossy crust and the golden stuff peels away from a soft, chewy heart like a ripe papaya losing its peel. It smelled sweet and fresh, the middle was pocked with lots and lots of wee holes. A close look at the center revealed what foodie sorts call a "glossy crumb"; the glisten of gluten, which gives it its distinct texture and resilience. Sturdy, resilient, handmade, and just ugly enough to be interesting, these are the bagels. And only 60 cents, even with their little airline tickets? A bargain! The lox was wildly different than that I had anywhere else: Profoundly orange and very fishy, it reminded me of the flying-fish roe you find in sushi: salty and powerful. (Bagel sandwiches with lunch meats are available for $3.89.) Too bad Brother's/H&H bagels are only for business people; the week I remember to pick up bagels from Brother's in advance for the weekend will be the same week I alphabetize the recycling.
Next, I wove my way through the skyways to Bixby's Café, another bagel chain, although one with only the mildest local presence. The place is very "now" in its design, high ceilings, clear signs, graphic use of the colors of sand and wood: Milan meets the Pillsbury Center. The usual: 60 cents, $4.75, and really good coffee for $1.25. The sandwich maker performed an impressive bit of theater with lox and bagel: She brought out a brand-new individual package of smoked salmon and sliced it open by running a large, dangerous looking knife along all four sides of the square vacuum-pack, using full-muscle arm gestures--benihana, bagel-style! The bagel was nice: chewy, a little obstinate, the surface bearing the right sheen. The flavor was a bit characterless and floury, though, and the crust didn't pull away from the heart, which by now had become one of my tests of bagel excellence. The lox tasted sweet, strongly of smoke, and, of all things, bacon. All in all, Bixby, like Einstein Bros., gave me an impression of a good and efficient corporate bagel experience. If I worked in the Pillsbury Center, where Bixby's is, I'm sure I would go there all the time.
I scurried out and hung an up, two downs, a south, and a back to get myself to Bagelman's. Now, the last time I went to Bagelman's, I thought it was really good. Not so now. There could have been tumbleweeds blowing through the joint for all the traffic they had, and I soon learned why: The everything bagel (60 cents) was hard and bald, the coffee ($1.39) was astringent and unpleasant, and while the lox was perfect, the garlic bagel it sat on was pallid and dense as a shoe. Frenetic classic rock ricocheted through the room. Leaving Bagelman's, I noticed the farewell printed on my receipt: "You can never eat to [sic] many bagels." You know, they'd be surprised. I can eat to bagels till the cream cheese turns orange-cranberry, if they're edible.
I went to Big Apple Bagels next, and managed to drive past the Frogtown location twice--once after having gotten a clear, unobstructed look at it. There's something about this brand-spanking-new building and its attendant air of future prosperity that just wavers like a mirage in the face of all the Frogtown noodle houses and architectural neglect. Now, this Big Apple Bagels opened just last November, and I was prepared to dislike the vast chain from the moment I walked in its big airy door. The reason for my prejudice was that the place specializes in irritatingly trademarked, Big Brother meets Little Sister cutesy-poo language in which too many nouns are prefixed by the descriptor "my favorite." As in this text lifted from the takeout menu: "My Favorite Muffins® freeze very well, so you can enjoy a fresh muffin whenever you want one." You mean your favorite muffins, or my favorite muffins? (Break for hilarious laughter, hazelnut coffee, those special moments only best friends share; add more muffins; repeat.) Also, there are mini muffins. Mini cheesecake muffins. So you see? Perhaps it was only habit that propelled me to the counter for an everything bagel, 60 cents; a garlic bagel with lox and cream cheese, $4.39; and a coffee, $1.05.
But then--a miracle! These bagels were really quite good! Almost as good as Brother's/H&H's: A glossy crust bearing the correct weight of toppings; a slightly sweet, airy, chewy middle. They tasted fresh, they tasted light. No wonder Big Apple locations are sprouting up around the metro like mushrooms in the compost! Now, why would these bagels at this bagel chain be any different from other bagels at other bagel chains? Well, one clue is that most of the big operations--with the notable exception of Big Apple--make their dough in advance at a central plant, freeze the rings of bagel, and then simply boil, top, and bake them on site. They're frozen bagels, wearing fresh bagel clothes. H&H Bagels, seen at Brother's, even after weathering the rigors of national travel, have buoyant hearts and feisty shells. Big Apple Bagels are made from scratch and taste like it: Their crusts are noble, their hearts light.
On to True Brew, a neighborhood coffee shop in the strip mall off 50th Street just west of Highway 100. It has a comfy, easygoing feel and a big couch for flopping; everyone seems like a regular. All the bagels are again made from scratch. The solo everything (59 cents--but only a quarter on Sundays through March!) was a swell little fellow: He passed the pull test, the crust coming away from the springy heart just as it should. Perhaps his toppings were a bit spare, but some believe that less is more. The coffee ($1.20) was good, and the smoked salmon was so beautifully fresh it tasted almost like sushi-salmon. Could a generous portion of salmon on a respectable bagel really cost only $4.19? At these prices, expect an invasion from the coast.
But it was just about here that I came to the core of why I was so crabby: I mean, New York perfect bagels--who cares? What is this shadow-of-New York thing? Big Apple Bagels, Big City Bagels, Manhattan Bagels (now gone from St. Paul), New York Bagels... What, no Lady Liberty Bagels? Asphalt Jungle Bagels? If I Can Make It There I'll Make It Anywhere Bagels? You think Minnesotans are standing in the middle of Times Square, wringing their hands and complaining that you can't get a decent piece of lefse or rhubarb pie? And you think New Yorkers are springing double-time to make it so, and other New Yorkers are sardonically laughing at them for their efforts? New Yorkers. Bah humbug. Someone toast me up one of those macadamia-fudge bagels.