San Francisco has a reputation for terrible pizza that I’ve long thought was based on nothing more than self-perpetuating hearsay. It comes from New Yorkers, of course, possibly because they’re sensitive to the equally no longer-true claim that you can’t get a decent Mission burrito in the five boroughs. One thing you can’t dispute though: San Francisco’s bagel scene has always been middling — such that I found the best bagel in the Bay Area is in Oakland.
Admittedly, I’m biased. Where I grew up on Long Island, bagels were ubiquitous, a Jewish food only inasmuch as pizza is an Italian food. The closest bagel store was Bagel Express, where prices went up a nickel a year and the idea of a jalapeño bagel was so out there as
to defy comprehension. When I was a comically broke grad student at NYU, I waited at Bagel Bob’s after class on Monday evenings for $.25 bagels, vying with thrifty old ladies for the last few everythings.
Boiled and then baked, a good bagel should have a shine to it, a hearty chew, and under no circumstances should the center be a smooth, round hole. The closer a bagel comes to being swollen shut, the better — even though the word “bagel” comes from a Germanic word for “bracelet.” To test the NorCal scene, I ate about a dozen bagels from seven different places, both chain and artisanal, always giving Noah’s a wide berth. (What, you want I should eat such crap?)
As I was halfway through my bagel odyssey, The New York Times Magazine published a treatise on the
state of San Francisco bagels. Apart from how hard the Gray Lady has trolled California all year, I can’t quibble with any of the magazine’s conclusions, except to say it should have come down harder on Lender’s bagels, which are inedible. (Also, I’ve seen salt bagels with table salt on them in upstate New York, so let me suggest the Paper of Record investigate the situation in Albany.)
I applaud the Times for not slipping in a glib “must be something in the water” line, too — bagels are boiled, so that would neutralize any pH differential or microbial magic. But I dispute the article’s San Francisco-specific premise, because again, they didn’t bother schlepping to the East Bay.
Based on the bagels’ suspiciously consistent round holes alone, I wouldn’t
recommend Posh Bagel (495 Castro St., among other locations), unless you just put your name down for brunch and the wait is lengthy. As a better baseline, Working Girl Café (122 New Montgomery St.), which obtains its bagels from International Pastries, was much more suitable: perfectly serviceable for an outsourced baked good, not too much cream cheese, lots of smiles.
For baked-in-house goodness, the Bagel Bakery (151 Townsend St.) in SOMA has a lot going for it, splitting the difference between Flatbush Avenue and the Esalen Institute. High marks to the flawless crunch on the toasted bagel with lox and cream cheese, but I was let down by the bagel dough. I’m going to piss off some hardcore partisans here, but the dough was too thin to withstand the beef and cheddar
toppings, and I would have preferred it unbuttered because it was too greasy by half. And I know people love Katz Bagels (3147 16th St.), but I can only rate them in the middle of the pack. They’re too small, with a pillowy interior that just isn’t for me.
While Wise Sons (3150 24th St.) has yet to roll out a proper bagel — it’s coming soon, although the pressure must be enormous — it does have an open-faced bialy with hand-sliced smoked salmon that’s more lunch than breakfast. If bagels have an appealing radial symmetry, bialies — baked but not boiled — look like lumps, which is probably why they’re more obscure. (Think of them as the hideous-yet-tasty grouper to bagels’ sockeye salmon.) While I’m a bit out of my depth adjudicating the authenticity of fading
Jewish cuisine, I’m sure my grandfather’s business partners in the garment trade would have approved of this bialy with a cream soda.
When I learned that the team at the House of Bagels (5030 Geary Blvd.) had invested eight years in a gluten-free bagel recipe, I knew the place was legit. (And the nomenclature is tried-and-true. Where else for trampolines but House of Air, and why get new rotors anywhere but House of Brakes?). It offers “cragels,” a hybrid bagel-croissant that debuted just as cronut mania crested and which might give purists an infarction — until they try them. When I interviewed co-owner Jenny Puente last year, she mentioned that the House of Bagels’ bagel recipe arrived in S.F. from Brooklyn in 1962, when there were few if any bagel shops here. This bagel
is the real deal, my favorite in San Francisco proper.
But I had one more to taste. My last stop was Authentic Bagel (463 Second St.) near Jack London Square in Oakland. It was, without doubt, the closest approximation of Lawnguyland I’ve ever found anywhere — which is odd given the sourdough starter and the bit of honey that’s added as the bagels are boiling. The sheer density of the everything toppings was wonderful, but the chew was perfection. This is the gold standard! I could have been on my way to Jones Beach with an Igloo full of Ecto-Cooler like it was 1992.