Last month, a writer I follow on social media tweeted, “We don’t talk enough about how a Top 10 reason to stay in NYC is that on a Sunday morning a totally decent bagel and cream cheese is never more than a 7-minute walk from anywhere.”
This resonated deeply with me; the city’s ubiquitous and arguably finest bagel scene was one of the prime perks of my new Bushwick home.
I moved to Bushwick from South Florida at the end of January, thinking I knew bagels. They were a DIY meal at my Jewish family’s gatherings, placed in the center of the table in a large bowl surrounded by tubs of cream cheese, tuna and egg salad, plates of lox, tomatoes, and onions. At diners, bagels were served in plastic dishes as a side to omelettes, dry and thin next to a prepackaged serving of cream cheese. I thought they were great, and I, like most others, never considered ordering one to-go.
My first morning in Bushwick, I did a little Yelping and found Knickerbocker Bagel, five minutes from my apartment. It changed everything.
I took my lightly toasted sesame bagel to a stainless steel table, initially aghast at the glob of lox spread resting between the bread. I resisted the urge to scrape half of it off, and that first chewy bite was a holy experience: the warm, fluffy center; the perfectly browned crust.
As I raved to anyone who would listen, I learned Knickerbocker Bagel, at 367 Knickerbocker Ave., was relatively new to the neighborhood, having opened in September. I learned from my new friends that everyone has his or her favorite spot, which they excitedly volunteer.
One friend travels from Washington Heights to Queens for Astoria Bagel. Another prefers the bagels at Swallow, 156 Atlantic Ave. Milk & Pull, at 181 Irving Ave., was out of bagels by 3:30 p.m. on Friday, the baristas explaining that the baked goods are perhaps the most popular menu item. Knickerbocker Bagel’s metal bagel bins were nearly bare by that time, as well.
As the writer above pointed out, when the craving for a bagel-and-schmear strikes, the options to find one immediately seem endless. But with so many options — from hip coffee shops to no-frills corner delis to the stores touting the infamous Rainbow Bagel — how do you determine the best?
I talked to Joe, the owner of Knickerbocker Bagel. He is a man with weary, bright blue eyes and wiry gray hair that goes astray when it’s not tucked under the uniform red caps.
A lot has to do with the New York water, Joe said, “but don’t ask me why — New York water, upstate water is just different than Florida water. It’s the best water for baking.”
Scientifically, the water has low concentrations of calcium and magnesium, which make it softer, according to Quartz. But the key to a great bagel, Joe said, is doing things the old fashioned way.
Behind the register, you can catch a glimpse of the contraption responsible for producing the bagels every day (beginning at 3 a.m., Joe said). They’re hand-rolled and water-boiled, the latter of which NPR reported is the true reason behind the perfect, chewy bite of bagel.
“Everything changes,” Joe said of bagel trends. “A lot of people went automated, so they do rack bagels now. Commercial-type bagels. Even bread, too. Everything is quick and fast today. They don’t hire people to do stuff anymore. Machines do it. It’s a lot different than the old-fashioned way.”
While many of the bagel shops in Bushwick outsource their bagels, not all eschew tradition. BK Bagels, for instance, sells about 60 to 100 bagels a day from A&S Bagels, a bagel wholesaler and retailer that takes pride in its “kettle-boiled and baked kosher bagels made the old-fashioned way.”
Even after a couple of months here, I still get excited about Knickerbocker Bagel, which has since become part of my weekend morning routine: I pick my disheveled self out of bed to head around the corner, wait in organized chaos for my lightly-toasted sesame bagel topped with a glob of lox spread, and take it to-go.
If you couldn’t grasp from this mini ode, Knickerbocker Bagel makes the best I’ve ever had, but I suppose it represents more. I left a comfortable home, a great job and a gaggle of friends in South Florida, where life — and the bagels — wasn’t bad, for an adventure in one of the greatest cities in the world.
So far, it hasn’t disappointed.
Cover image courtesy of Tara Evans