In a nutshell: Can anything be more New York than the hol(e)y bread known as a bagel? Whether you visit a local bodega, frequent a national chain, or dine at a fashionable brunch spot, the oh-so-reliable bagel is omnipresent. Here’s a look at Manhattan’s heavy hitters: Russ & Daughters, Ess-A-Bagel, and Absolute Bagels.
There are two prominent bagel styles in North America: New York-style and Montreal-style. Here, we’ll focus on the puffy New York bagel, which contains salt and malt and is boiled in water prior to baking in a standard oven. The Montreal version, on the other hand, contains malt and sugar with no salt; moreover, it is boiled in honey-sweetened water before getting placed in a wood-fired oven. The resulting bagel is smaller (although with a larger hole), crunchier, and sweeter.
Those who have the chutzpah to try replicating the mainstay known as Russ & Daughters on East Houston Street too often fall short of the original. Four generations of the Russ family have run this institution since 1914, maintaining its status as a historical marker of the food establishments that once peppered the Lower East Side.
It’s an experience visiting this spot on a weekend morning. While it is a bit daunting to pull a ticket for the main counter that says #57 and they’re only on person #33, you can take the time to explore the rest of the shop. Inside you’ll find all sorts of treats to purchase, from jars of raspberry rugelach to tins of glistening wasabi roe.
The workers behind the counter sport pristine white lab coats, meticulous scientists in their own right at cutting the perfect slice of pastrami-cured salmon.
Speaking of salmon, 14 types of smoked salmon alone are available for purchase. From Gaspe Nova Smoked to Double-Smoked Danish to Wild White King Kippered, the offerings range along spectrums of color, geographic origin, and flavor intensity.
If salmon isn’t quite to your liking, never fear: there’s whitefish, sturgeon, sable, chub, brook trout, yellowfish tuna, peppered mackerel, herring… the list goes on and on.
For a full-on smorgasbord, pick up containers packed with chilled sides like Eggplant Salad Roumanian, german potato salad, and beet-apple-herring salad. These recipes have been passed down over the years.
Depending on the type of lox and other add-ons you include, your sandwich could reach upwards of $20. For that splurge, though, you’re paying for exceptional quality.
While the bagel doesn’t wow, it serves as a plush foundation to the true star of the show: the fillings. Delicate folds of silky salmon, a cloud of whipped cream cheese, pungent rings of raw red onion, beady capers with a briny pop.
Sometimes Yelp describes it best: “A fantasy land of the creamiest of cream cheese and the fishiest of smoked fish!”
Established in 1976 by Gene and Florence Wilpon and her brother Aaron Wenzelberg, Ess-A-Bagel puts the founders’ Austrian baking heritage to the test. Indeed, their hand-rolled bagels captured my heart and stomach at first bite.
Ess-A-Bagel has two locations for New Yorkers to get their fix: the original in Stuyvesant Town and the second storefront in Midtown East.
There is an extensive selection of spreads and accompaniments. Take the cream cheese options: some of the more unusual offerings include apple cinnamon, berry berry, olive, and chocolate chip. The strawberry cream cheese is a personal favorite, its sweet, fruity punch harmonizing with the mild, creamy base.
The precision and speed with which the staff processes the people in line is staggering, often making me wonder if there’s a secret bagel training school I can attend to increase my own efficiency.
There are 14 “normal bagel” varieties–Plain, Sesame, Poppy, Salt, Onion, Garlic, Oat Bran, 9-Grain, CInnamon Raisin, Pumpernickel, Pumpernickel-Raisin, Everything, Whole Wheat, Whole Wheat Everything–as well as mini bagel and bialy options.
Ask for the bagels that just came out of the oven. No matter what flavor, this will hands-down be the best choice you’ve ever made when it comes to bagels. The bagels are substantially-sized; one of them will barely fit in your hand. If you choose to get accoutrements slathered on top, be reassured that they don’t skimp: your sandwich will be overflowing with a thick layer of cream cheese, slices of lox, and any other toppings you choose.
The dough is pleasantly yeasty, its soft interior exhibiting a slight density. Encasing the tender insides is a faintly crisp crust distinguishing itself from the rest of the bagel.
Ess-A-Bagel? More like YES-A-Bagel.
In Morningside Heights just below Columbia’s campus, where Broadway intersects West End, a candy-striper awning beckons you near. Perhaps it was the smell of baking bread wafting out to the street. Either way, you should probably get in line for Absolute(ly delicious) Bagels before the queue gets longer.
Owner Sam Thongkrieng learned his trade when he came to New York in 1980 from Bangkok and college in London. He gained an in-depth understanding at a number of popular bagel shops in New York, including Bagel Nosh, Zaro’s, and Ess-a-Bagel, before opening his own shop in 1990.
Absolute Bagels is a no-frills kind of place. As you enter, it’s a straight shot to the counter. To your right is a smattering of tables and chairs; the seating can be hard to come by on mornings where the seats are filled by ravenous college students or a gaggle of family members.
In addition to bagels, Absolute Bagels is stocked with all the accoutrements needed to gussy up your breakfast bread. For instance, I’ve never seen such a wide selection of tofutti. Thai iced tea is also a favorite amongst visitors.
But bagels are where it’s at. Absolute Bagels makes them all in-house and has quite the variety on hand with 15 flavors to choose from: plain, poppy, sesame, onion, garlic, salt, pumpernickel, whole wheat, cinnamon raisin, pumpernickel raisin, egg, everything, rye, whole wheat sesame, and multigrain. They also allow you to toast your bagel, something that horrifies many other bagel institutions in town. Personally, I find these bagels perfect in their unadulterated state.
The workers are patient yet efficient, moving the line along and churning out bagels like clockwork. Be sure to ask for which ones just came out of the oven so you can sink your teeth into the hottest ones behind the counter. You can’t go wrong.
Keep in mind that the place is cash only, so while the prices are incredibly reasonable, make sure to pad your wallet if you’re planning to walk out with paper bags filled to the brim with bagels. In that case, I might just become your new best friend.
While some swear by making an elaborate sandwich or smearing a healthy swipe of cream cheese through its middle, sometimes a bagel is best in its purest form. These are slightly crispy on the outside, with a light chewiness within.
And yes, I took a bite out of that bagel before I could snap a shot. Don’t judge– you’d do the same.
New York, NY
359 1st Ave | 831 3rd Ave Ste 1
New York, NY
Russ & Daughters
179 E Houston Street
New York, NY