A reader, who recently moved from New York, asked me where they could find a good bagel.
First off, to my reader, welcome! You’re not alone with that smart relocation, as this recent story by my colleague Al Lubrano shows: More New Yorkers are moving to Philly than the other way around. Aside from the more affordable rents, smaller lines for everything, bigger potholes, and better football team (Go, Birds!), you’ll find Philadelphia is a wonderfully diverse and dynamic place to eat.
Our bagel scene? It’s come a long way in recent years. And I know New York bagels: My first date with my wife was at Absolute Bagels on the Upper West Side, and it was an instant romance. Beyond the shiny exterior, there was a dense, chewy, complex character. Crusty, but lovable. An instant habit.
Almost as a rule, Philly bagels tend to be a little lighter, perhaps because of the different water, weather (or our breezy attytudes). You’ll note this character in what is perhaps our most typical, straight-ahead New York-style bagelry, the rapidly growing Philly Bagels chain that originated from the venerable South Street “Hot” Bagels (my favorite of the company’s locations) and that, as Michael Klein recently detailed, is expanding in Center City.
I’ll eat these bagels, because they are perfectly fine, but they are a little too lightweight for me. A better classic bagel, I believe, is being made in the suburbs at the Original Bagel in Broomall (2914 West Chester Pike, 610-353-9600), where fifth-generation bagel master Michael Leibowitz is carrying on the tradition from his father, Melvin, who launched what is believed to be Philly’s first water bagel bakery – New York Bagels (now owned by someone else) in 1965.
We’ve had something of a next-gen bagel revolution over the last decade, though, with a number of worthy, handmade takes. My absolute favorite remains Fishtown’s Philly Style Bagels (1451 E. Columbia Ave.), which has the crunch and dense chew, but also a deeply developed flavor thanks to a long dough fermentation that takes on a shade of malty sweetness from a boil in local beer. I’d put them up against any artisan bagel from New York (i.e., Black Seed), and I believe these guys, who started as a pop-up in the old Pizzeria Beddia, are prime for a second location (though nothing official yet.)
The Montreal-inspired Spread Bagelry is already well into an expansion phase between Rittenhouse Square and University City and coming locations on South Street and in Bryn Mawr. But these bagels, which get boiled in honey before roasting in a wood oven, are something different altogether — softer, breadier, sweeter. It’s a different craving. I’ve also grown to really like the cheffy takes on the craft at Knead Bagels (725 Walnut St.) off Washington Square, where the fennel-salt, black sesame, and togarashi-spiced bagels are favorites. If you’ve never had a bagel turned trendy black with charcoal, head to the Kettle Black in Northern Liberties (631 N. Second St.).
But sometimes, the best bagels are the unexpected ones. And this recommendation, the Cafetería y Panedería Las Rosas, best known for its conchas and churros in deep South Philly (1712 S. Eighth St.), is one I’ve not had a chance to check out. But it comes from a solid source: chef Michael Solomonov, who recognized co-owner David Meneses from their prep kitchen days together at Striped Bass. He recently sent me this bagel rave: “Crispy crackly exteriors … non-traditional … and wonderful.”
If the bagel itself is a story of cultural diaspora, here you have one made at a Mexican bakery in a former Italian bakery, which was once a German bakery, not far from Philly’s Jewish Quarter in the early 20th century. You could call it our original Lower East Side, I guess, but this bakery is telling a truly Philadelphian bagel story, for sure.