New York? Los Angeles? Montreal?
What bagel camp do you belong to?
It’s a competition that’s lasted for decades, and everyone has an opinion they’re probably not willing to change.
In which city can you find the best bagel?
The history of the bagel largely mirrors the history of the migration of the Jewish community, starting in Europe, then coming to New York and ultimately reaching the West Coast.
“Bagels really started in New York,” said Sarah Benor, author and professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.
“There were bagels in Eastern Europe, but they were very different. They were hard; they were made with a different kind of flour. When Eastern European Jews came to the U.S. they started using a different kind of flour that made the bagels puffier and softer.”
That subtle alteration, Benor said, allowed this new type of bagel to become “a vehicle for cream cheese,” which was key to attracting American customers.
As Jewish people migrated across the country, so did bagels.
One of the most well-known places on the West Coast, and the first bagel shop to open in Los Angeles, is Western Bagel. The company started in New York after family patriarch Louis Ustin fled the Russian Revolution.
He found work at a bakery and, later, his son David followed in his footsteps.
“One day, while working, [David] overheard a union representative say there were no good bagels in California,” the company’s website reports. “This statement affected David in a very strong way. With his entrepreneurial spirit, he set out to California with his wife, Ethel, and two business partners to open up a bagel bakery.”
Once he got to California, the story goes on, he realized that West Coast residents had different tastes. And thus the Los Angeles bagel was born. David Ustin opened his first shop in 1947 at 324 W. Pico Ave.
“West Coasters just couldn’t get enough of these delectable delights,” the website boasts.
Western Bagel now has 11 retail locations from Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley and also supplies many grocery stores and restaurants.
And they’re no longer the only game in town.
Southern California is home to thousands of bagel shops, from the standard, pink box, doughnut/bagel hybrid bakeries, to West Coast style bagel shops, to those claiming to offer authentic New York bagels.
Some recognizable names include Noah’s, Brooklyn Bagel Company, Brent’s Deli, Canter’s, Maury’s, The Bagel Broker and Bagel Factory.
The word “bagel” is derived from Yiddish, and bagels and lox have long been associated with the Jewish community. Plus, as is standard with food and Judaism, it’s often a way to connect with our Jewishness.
“Deli food and bagels have become an important part of Jewish identity in America,” Benor said. “Even people who are not involved in Jewish communal life and are not religiously observant often still feel a strong sense of connection to their Jewishness that is manifested sometimes through food.”
But the bagel culture has expanded far beyond that over the years. And just as Chicago pizza is different from New York pizza, “foods change as they’re transported to new locations,” Benor said.
“There are bagel shops in places without a lot of Jews just as there are pizza places in areas where there aren’t a lot of Italians,” she added. “Pizza came from Italy, but when it got to America it was totally different.”
As the hipster food scene in Southern California has exploded, of course bagels have become a part of it.
Chef Jason Quinn owns perhaps the area’s newest bagel shop, Dough Exchange in downtown Santa Ana.
While many small business owners were hunkering down and just trying to survive amid the coronavirus crisis, Quinn decided to try something brand new. He opened his bagel shop in June, next to his existing restaurant, Playground.
Quinn is well known in the food world, with stints on “Top Chef” and “The Great Food Truck Race.” He also grew up Jewish in Orange County, which is how his love for bagels began.
“Growing up, I was in a Jewish community and bagels were this thing we did with other Jews. It [provided] kind of powerful memories of the Jewish experience of my particular life. In my childhood, it was the first food I remember enjoying,” Quinn said. “It took the pandemic to make me really think about my powerful food memories from my life.”
One day he thought, “Why aren’t we making bagels?”
He already had the space and the equipment; he’d previously operated the space as a bakery and doughnut shop. So he started making them, and that first fresh bagel brought him right back to childhood.
“I thought, oh my gosh, this is giving me like a ‘Ratatouille’ moment,” he said, referring to the 2007 animated film. “It’s been this amazing experience to open my dream bagel shop.”
Quinn’s bagels are anything but traditional. His menu of bagel sandwiches includes everything from the Korean-inspired “K-Pop” to salmon pastrami. And he’s always cooking up something new you’ve never heard of before.
“I have to keep innovating and doing new ones and thinking about what can go on a bagel,” Quinn said. “We just sit around and we’re like, ‘Oh, what about this?’”
Of course, you can still get your classic lox sandwich, but even that is elevated.
So can you find a good bagel in Los Angeles? Quinn argues yes. Though, as with any type of food business, there are a lot of duds.
“It’s one of the cheapest businesses you can open. You can go get a doughnut shop and buy premeasured doughnut mix and bagel mix and the next thing you know, you can have doughnuts, you can have bagels,” Quinn said.
“That’s why when you walk up to some places and you see a dozen bagels for $5, that’s that product. But we proudly charge $3.50 for one bagel because that is not our product. So much time and labor goes into our product.”
It’s not the water, he added, referring to the age-old story that the New York water makes the bagels taste better.
In contrast with its American counterparts, Montreal bagels are known for being sweeter, with honey and sesame. They don’t toast their bagels, and they don’t use cream cheese across the border.
Whatever it is that makes each city’s bagels different, it has certainly created a cross country and international rivalry that’s not going to die down anytime soon.
For Benor? It’s still all about the New York bagel.
“I’ve tried a lot of places [in Los Angeles] but I haven’t really found bagels that taste like New York bagels to me,” Benor said. “But my children prefer L.A. bagels. People feel strong ownership over their version.”
Lauren Gold is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.