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Battle of the Bagels: In Search of Best Bagel Around

A quest for the best bagel in South Orange, Maplewood and Millburn.

Who sells the best bagel? This simple question got me started on a search for the holy grail of Sunday morning eating. I traveled throughout South Orange, Maplewood and Short Hills looking for the bagel to defeat all others, eating more bagels in one sitting than I thought possible. Yeah, you guys better appreciate this. The amount of carbs I ingested for you in an hour span would make even Michael Phelps blush.

I must say, we do bagels pretty darn well in our neck of the woods. In just a short distance, you can find a bagel to meet any taste. Even more plentiful, of course, are opinions on where to find the best one. Just search in the Maplewood Online message boards archives and you'll see that not only is there a bagel for everyone, but folks are incredibly passionate about their favorite.

To really test these bagel makers, I conducted this little experiment on a Sunday morning since Sundays are, after all, created for bagel consumption. I must admit, I entered with my prejudices. To do this fairly and accurately, I conducted a blind test, including bagels from five shops with absolutely no idea which was which: Sonny's and Hot Bagels Abroad in South Orange; Bagels-4-U in Short Hills; Bagel Chateau in Maplewood; and my experimental control, Dunkin' Donuts, also in South Orange.

After 45 minutes of driving around, waiting in line and buying bagels, my lovely assistant, my darling wife Emily, set up the taste test while I left the room. She mixed the bagels up and assigned each bagel maker a number. I bought two from each place, the tried and true sesame seed bagel and my personal favorite, the slightly flamboyant onion bagel. I wanted to see how each would do with a basic and specialty variety. I toyed with the idea of adding the plain bagel (which some people would consider pure) into the mix, but I couldn't stomach the idea of consuming that many plain bagels. I'd rather eat a paper factory.

#1: Sonny's

I love the premise. It's an old school Jewish bagel place that's been around forever. It's a true hole in the wall. With no bells and whistles, the fact that it's still in business attests to its loyal following. It really should be the best bagel joint around. I rather assumed it was.

Out of all the bagels, these were the smallest. They were also the most dense, chewy on the outside, firm on the inside. The two bagels weren't consistent, though. The sesame had a good texture to it but the feel and texture of the onion was a little off, likely due to it being formed a little differently than the other. I worry about this inconsistency. That said, they both had excellent flavor. I'd have liked a bit more of a sesame seed topping, but it was tasty. The onion flakes themselves were the strongest and tastiest of the whole bunch. It had a great kick to it, a fantastic toasted onion taste. I give Sonny's a solid B.

#2: Bagel Chateau

I was disappointed. That's not to say these were bad, but they were distinctly not bagel-like. They were more akin to bread shaped into a bagel form than anything else. The skin had a medium toughness to it with a relatively soft interior. They had a yeastier flavor than any other bagel I tested, which I didn't like. There was a great coating of topping on one side, though the bagels were surprisingly mild-tasting considering.

The main difference likely comes from the fact that Bagel Chateau makes their bagels differently than the other bagel shops. Sonny's, Hot Bagels Abroad and Bagels-4-U all use the traditional method of boiling and baking, while these guys skip the boiling part and instead bake the bagels in an oven that has a steam injection system.

Ultimately, while these aren't bad tasting, I don't really consider them bagels. They would make a great base for the lunch sandwiches Bagel Chateau assembles, but this is definitely not a place I'd go to for a dozen bagels when I have overnight guests from out of town. I give these bagels a C.

#3: Dunkin' Donuts

Oh man, I had trouble buying bagels from this place. Yes, it's true, I really didn't like passing up the Boston creme donuts (avoiding Dunkin' Donuts is one of the main reasons I'm able to maintain my boyish figure, thank you very much). I didn't have high expectations, but since I was conducting a blind test, I thought it would be fun to throw the double D into the mix to see how they fared with the bagel experts.

I loved the stirrup shape of these—it was surprisingly charming and a bit disarming (historically, this is how bagels were originally shaped). To describe the taste, I'm going to ask you to close your eyes for a moment. Imagine you're picking up a dry sponge. Now put that in your mouth and chew ... Yeah, you'd probably end up happier than I did with the Dunkin' Donut bagels. Ew.

The sesame bagel had a lovely amount of sesame seeds that curved around the edge, more generously than many others; it's just too bad they were tasteless. The texture was off. I was shocked to find a bagel that was entirely the same from outside to inside. There was no toughness to the skin and no fluffiness to the interior. The whole thing was a bit dense and tasted doughy.

The onion bagel qualifies as the worst bagel I ever ate. It was not coated in onion flakes. Rather, there appeared to be some onion pieces scattered in the dough and baked within, though I couldn't taste any onion. Friggin' glorified plain bagel! Talk about bland.

Dunkin' Donuts should really stick to, well ... donuts. I give them a D-, and that's only because I'm feeling generous. (And I really did like that shape.)

#4: Bagels-4-U

This is the only place out of the five I had never stepped foot in before. I was excited to expand my horizons. Since I'm trying to be generous, I won't make any comment about the name, even though it sounds like it came out of an Internet chatroom from 1997.

Luckily, the name was the only thing tasteless about these bagels. It had the second most concentrated amount of toppings, still only focused on one side but with enough overflow to the other side to make me a happy enough boy. The outside was fantastic, not too chewy yet firm enough to differentiate itself from the inside, which was as perfect as I ever tasted. The texture was satisfying, light and fluffy but not overly so. There was great balance between the inside and outside, different textures that blended well together. The flavors were enjoyable but not overpowering, a perfect complement for some schmear.

As if things couldn't get any better, these were the only bagels to come warm in the bag. This is the A+, my friends. Talk about a bagel!

#5: Hot Bagels Abroad

What's up with these names!? Oh well, moving on...

Hallelujah! This is the only shop out of all five that actually makes bagels with toppings on both sides. How revolutionary! With my disdain for plain bagels already noted, you can imagine how much the flavor on both sides of the bagel excites me.

The skin of the bagels was a little tough but the inside was delightfully fluffy. Airy and delicious. Alas, they didn't blend perfectly in the mouth, but that shouldn't matter to lovers of light and fluffy. The toppings posed a decent flavor. I prefer slightly stronger, but I was satisfied. Better yet, this was the largest of all of the bagels, offering more bang for the buck. These bagels get a very nice A-.

To summarize...

The best all around: Bagels-4-U

The fluffiest: Hot Bagels Abroad

The firmest: Sonny's

The crappiest: Dunkin Donuts

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a bagel coma to fall into. Would someone please recommend a no-carb diet? Oy gevalt.

 

Ben Salmon is a former literary agent and the owner of Kitchen a la Mode: Accessories for Cooking & Entertaining in the heart of downtown South Orange. Each Thursday, his local food column at Patch explores the food and drink scene in South Orange, Maplewood and Millburn. What would you do with quinces, kumquats and pomelos? Check out last week's column.

Have an idea for something you'd like me to explore? E-mail me. I'd love to hear from you.

Si Morley March 05, 2009 at 08:24 PM
You've got to be kidding. "cept for H&H bagels in NYC, Sonny's are the best most authentic bagels around.
Elissa Malespina March 05, 2009 at 09:23 PM
I am going to have to disagree with you on this one my fine friend but Sonny's rules.
Joe Malespina March 05, 2009 at 09:35 PM
Great article. I'll concede that Bagels 4U does make a good bagel and without question Dunkin' Donuts "bagels" are absolutely miserable. As a native of S.O. I'm partial to Sonny's and believe it is still the best bagel around here. Sonny's achilles heel is (and always has been) consistency. 95% of the time the bagels are the perfect mix of warm, crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside. It appears that you might have gotten one of the 5% in your blind tasting. One key to Sonny's for me has always been not getting hung up on a particular type of bagel ahead of time, which is a recipe for disappointment. I equate it to shopping for fish -- no sense buying the slimy looking salmon when the tuna just came off the truck and is absolutely pristine. Go into the store, take a look at all the bagel bins, ask whether any of the bagels just came out of the oven or (if you have the time to spare) ask if anything is just about ready to be pulled. Also, don't be afraid to make sure you get THE bagel you want. Replace the phrase, "I'd like a pumpernickel, please" with "I'd like THAT pumpernickel back there -- NO not that one, the one next to it -- YEAH, that's the one." You won't regret it. Oh yes, I almost forgot -- in my humble opinion a real bagel doesn't have seeds or onion/garlic flakes on both sides.
Michael Goldberg March 05, 2009 at 10:14 PM
Great column, Ben. I love it. I look forward to the next one!
Doug Zacker March 05, 2009 at 10:25 PM
Said it once, I'll sat it again...Great article but I gotta disagree. Sonny's is hands down the best but you're right about the inconsistency. The work around...just ask for a well done bagel. Do that and you'll always get the best bagel ever - crispy outside, chewy inside. YUM!
Ben Salmon March 05, 2009 at 11:16 PM
Should I be expecting to see a bunch of Sonny's devotees with sharpened pitchforks and torches blazing outside my home? I'll most definitely take you up on your suggestions, Joe. The Sonny's bagels I had weren't bad at all, I just prefer something a little less dense. It could be that what I had was not a true representation. I'll be getting my next bagels from them and asking for the ones right from the oven, for sure... After I'm done with my bagel detox, that is.
Janet Mansky Gerber March 06, 2009 at 02:06 AM
Count me as another Sonny's fan. But I've never tried Bagels4U. Personally, I even prefer Sonny's to both H&H and Zabars. I agree with Joe - I always ask "what's warm" (if they are too hot they melt the cream cheese into a real mess). Even the plain are fantastic, ditto the whole wheat.
Cotton Delo March 06, 2009 at 03:54 AM
I've always been partial to Bagel Chateau because I used to have lunch there in high school and order toasted bagels with butter. It was mostly about the company back then, so maybe it's time for a second look.
NC Janow March 06, 2009 at 12:23 PM
And don't forget Sonny's twisty bagels (not authentic but still yummy.). Lil Miss travels all the way from Hoboken for one of them. As someone who's grandma comes from Bialystock, bagel selection is in my genes. Sonnys rules, end of story!
Patricia Caballero March 21, 2009 at 12:56 AM
Big fan of Bagels Abroad. You are missing two important things about them -- one, the Black Russian bagel and two, the best Taylor ham, egg and cheese on a bagel around.
Barbara Heisler April 05, 2009 at 11:59 AM
I think Bagels 4 U was founded by Sonny's son ... or something like that!
SonnysBagels May 08, 2009 at 05:15 PM
We appreciate all of your loyalty to the business, and we will take into consideration your comments and requests. Thanks for the support!!!

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