Brooklyn? Clearly. Skokie? No question. Miami? Well, is the Pope Catholic?
But Cincinnati? This midwestern city may be known for serving up epic chili and scooping up world class ice cream confections, but a perfectly plump, crisp-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside, honest-to-goodness Jewish bagel? I had my doubts.
I was raised in Providence, Rhode Island in a neighborhood called the East Side, where Jewish culture is a way of life. I attended Kindergarten at the local Jewish Community Center, I ate deviled eggs with my grandmother after Saturday Synagogue services, I played dreidel and lit the Chanukah candles with kids from school, and I attended countless bar mitzvahs where I would watch my friends come of age — in a religious manner of speaking.
Most Saturday mornings, my dad would slip out of the house before we kids were awake, only to return home with a brown paper sack filled with plain, poppyseed, garlic, salt, cinnamon-raisin and, (if we were really lucky) everything bagels — all still warm to the touch. East Side Bagels was a handful of city blocks from our old, brick three-story house, and it was a nonpareil sort of place. The walls were yellowy-white, the formica tables were yellowy-white, and the counter clerks were all yellowy-white; well, at least they looked that way under the yellowy-white recessed lighting.
The wall behind the counter was lined with metal racks and wire baskets, all populated with delightfully plump, round bagels. It was always good practice to order from the fuller wire baskets, as they likely still held their heat from the oven.
A perfect bagel combines five factors: it is plump, it is slightly crispy (but not tough) on the outside, it is chewy on the inside, it has a slightly yeasty taste, and it is seeded on both sides (so when sliced, all of the flavor and crunch can be enjoyed on both halves).
Addendum: toasting is almost always a nice add, but a perfect bagel should be able to stand alone, without modification.
Though our neighbors swore by Korb’s or Bagel Gourmet, East Side Bagels hit every item on the list, handily winning my family’s loyalty. I couldn’t wait to lumber down the carpeted steps in my footie pajamas to tear open that paper sack and sink my teeth in to two or three of those warm breakfast goodies — likely garlic or everything flavor.
I raised an eyebrow when a Yelp search for ‘breakfast’ in the Cincinnati area had Marx Hot Bagels near the top of the list, and I was admittedly a touch skeptical when I heard the neighborhood has its share of Jewish dwellers. But I was thrilled to inhale that tell-tale yeasty aroma from the parking lot, and delighted to join the army of yarmulke-clad bagel noshers that had descended on the joint for their Sunday morning schmear.
I ordered three: a garlic, a bialy (an onion bagel and english muffin hybrid), and a plain, with one order of light cream cheese on the side and a black coffee. (I knew that any bagel bakery worth their Kosher salt would serve a cheesecake’s worth of cream cheese as a single order, and Marx did not disappoint.)
The bialy was a shining example of five star bagelry — at once tender and filling, crunchy and soft, sweet with onion and textured with coarse cornmeal. The garlic bagel was blanketed on both halves by zippy flecks of crunchy garlic. And the plain bagel, served directly from the oven and too hot to touch at first, had all the warmth and nostalgic goodness of a good hug from grandma. (Gosh, I miss her.)
And so it was that Marx Hot Bagels won a place in my heart, taking its rightful stance among many better-known establishments that make a good enough bagel to knock Sunday breakfast out of the park.
Where are your favorite bagel haunts? I can’t wait to crunch into one next time I come to your city?