Hype, history, heaven always: The Great Bagel Hunt in New York City

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 13, 2014

A pumpernickel bagel with lox spread

You can’t wander about a newbie in New York, without joining the Great Bagel Hunt. Or you can, but you’d have to be totally immune to one of the world’s great culinary classics. And the remarkable hardscrabble story epitomized by this simple sandwich.

Leah Koenig describes it in Time Out: “In the 1800s, inexpensive, already-cooked lox—a derivation of the Yiddish word for salmon, laks—was a boon to Eastern European Jews living in tenements with spare kitchens.”Then they swapped butter for cream cheese and from there, it was the power of advertising that took the bagels and cream cheese combo to the faddish heights of success. A 1930s Kraft-sponsored radio show hyped the pairing and New York City had its authentic alternative to the cheeseburger.

So there you have it. Hardship. Hype. Heaven wrapped in paper. But where, we wondered, might we find the best bagel? The real deal? As is usually the way, there is not a lot of agreement on such delicate matters. In its rundown of the best places to find everything edible in New York, Serious Eats offers four suggestions: Murray’s or Absolute Bagel (if the bagel is your priority). Russ & Daughters or Barney Greengrass (if smoked fish is important to you).

Every examination of the subject makes different suggestions but Russ & Daughters does seem to figure pretty unanimously on most lists.

That’s all very well, but what if you don’t want to wait to get to the Lower East Side for your bagel and lox?

CBS Local unwittingly provided the answer in its list of six best bagels in New York. Just yards from our hotel, Ess A, a relative upstart when it comes to selling bagels, but clearly something of an institution (since 1976). It has queues so long on a Saturday, it took us a full half-hour to get to order the pumpernickel with lox spread. That’s calling stumbling across a real bagel.

Jack Kerouac

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
– Jack Kerouac