The Journey to The Center of the Bagel

A Sesame Bagel from Spielman’s Bagels and Coffee. Photo by Ada Hallstrom

Our journey begins at 9:40 am in a black Volkswagen, the passengers hungry and complaining. Their goal? To find the best bagel in Portland Oregon.

The four of us in the car—Isa, Stella, my mom, and I—set out a plan to follow. We would visit four different bagel places and order one sesame bagel with cream cheese and one sesame bagel with butter, and compare the results. 

In order to be able to choose the ‘Best Bagel in Portland,’ I need to know what makes a great bagel. For these answers, I contacted who I find to be a true bagel expert. David Barile is the Lead Baker and one of the founders at Henry Higgins Boiled Bagels and has been making bagels in Oregon for 11 years. In his professional opinion, the perfect bagel is a mix of three characteristics: the appearance (shiny but without having a glaze), the texture (chewy with a mild crunch), and finally the flavor (not too sweet but sweeter than most bread). Barile specified that not only does a bagel have to be boiled, but the perfect bagel is also made when you get all of these things with a good recipe and by baking them directly on a hearthstone. He says that more often now, commercial bakeries bake their bagels on cookie sheets, which doesn’t qualify them as real bagels. My next steps were clear: identify the four establishments we would visit and eat some bagels!

Our first stop was Ben and Esther’s. We arrived hungry and ready to do some judging. As youth and one adult who had not yet gotten food that day, we were ready to dive in. The bagel was toasted and warm, crispy on the outside but perfectly soft and chewy inside. It fit all of David’s criteria and tasted amazing as well. After eating, I asked Mike from Ben and Esther’s what he thought made a great bagel and what he said matched exactly what David told me, “if it’s not boiled, it’s not a bagel.”

As we moved on to stop two, our stomachs were a little bit fuller and we were in higher spirits. When we arrived at Henry Higgins, Isa’s first thought was that the store had better vibes than Ben and Esther’s. I could see why the ceiling was strung with fairy lights and there was a soft hum of people talking; the store was a lot cozier. Once we had the first taste we all immediately agreed with Stella’s initial assessment: there was too much cream cheese. The sheer amount of cheese on top was disgusting to even look at and really hard to get over. Trying a bite of the buttered bagel was a different story; the inside was squishy and baked evenly, which was something employee DeeDee had said was important to Henry Higgins. 

It should be noted by this time in our journey that we were almost full and the thought of eating another two halves each made us all sick, so we decided to switch and only order one bagel total, one side with cream cheese and one with butter at both Bowery Bagels and Spielmans Bagels. Bowery Bagels prides themselves on having authentic New York-style Kosher Bagels.

When we bit down, the crispy crust was obviously something they wanted us to notice, and it was a nice difference from the other bagels we had tried that day, but the inside wasn’t chewy like the New York style they were trying to emulate. 

Our last and final stop for the day was Spielman’s Bagels. Compared to the many amazing bagels we had tried that morning, this bagel had us feeling seriously underwhelmed. There was no crunch at all, and it tasted like an especially dense piece of bread, with heapings of sesame seeds dumped on top. None of us were particularly keen on finishing the one we had ordered, and it didn’t feel like an exceptionally strong way to finish the outing. 

On the car ride home, we had a very important conversation: what was the best bagel of the day? We had to compare texture, flavor, chewiness, amount of cream cheese, and the crunch factor. For three of us (Stella, my mom, and myself), Ben and Esther’s had the perfect texture. The bagel was chewy without being hard to eat and it had a light crunch that was pleasant without it tasting like a piece of dry toast. Another big thing was the layer of cream cheese on top which was neither barely-there nor spilling over, overall one of the more perfect bagels in Portland. 

Isa disagreed, “The contrast of the outer shell and the balance of the chewy inside that wasn’t too chewy or too soft” of the Bowery bagels was enough to award it the best. But because we were on a very serious mission, I called majority rules and was three against one, so we were all proud to crown Ben and Esther’s the best bagel in Portland. 

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