New Yorkers constantly debate about who makes the best bagels. According to my mom, I ate my first bagel before I had teeth, mashing pieces between my gums until it turned mushy enough to swallow. My children are fourth generation Brooklynites. They eat bagels so often, when they fall and cut themselves, they bleed sesame seeds and cream cheese. Based on decades of personal research, I can confidently narrow the competition for the best NYC bagel to Brooklyn. Anything made in the other four boroughs of the city is automatically inferior. Some say Brooklyn’s bagels are the best because of the water. There is a long held belief that the makeup of Brooklyn’s water contributes to the uniqueness of bagel dough made in the borough, and several years ago, some bagel enthusiasts hired a chemist to analyze the properties of Brooklyn’s drinking water. The endeavor resulted in Brooklyn Water Bagels, a business that can replicate Brooklyn water anywhere in the world.
Brooklynites also know it is sacrilege to adulterate the traditional recipe’s four simple ingredients: flour, water, salt and sugar. Once shaped, the dough is dropped into a kettle of boiling water before it is baked between 18 and 25 minutes. Some get dipped in sesame seeds, poppy seeds, salt, dried onions or garlic. A few more ingredients are added to make cinnamon raisin and pumpernickel bagels.
This next point is important: A rainbow bagel is an abomination. The words ”rainbow” and “bagel” should never be uttered together. Also, a Montreal bagel is not a real bagel. It’s a very nice baked good, but it is not a bagel.
On my quest for the best bagel in New York, I returned to Midwood, the neighborhood of my youth, where I learned that the Kings Highway bagel war hasn’t ended despite the passing of decades.
Highway Bagels has been on Kings Highway between Ocean Avenue and East 19th Street since 1953. Co-owner Luigi Kurto said that when the price of flour went up at the beginning of 2015 they refused to shrink the size of their bagels. The result—a bagel about the size of a newborn baby’s head—is as it should be. Bagels are topped with a liberal spread of poppy and sesame seeds. Highway’s bagels are baked 22 to 25 minutes, resulting in a slightly harder outer crust than most bagels in Brooklyn. Your teeth should have to do some work to get through a really good bagel. The interior is dense but not too chewy, just the right consistency every time.
About a half-mile west you’ll find Hot Bagels and Bialys at 1201 Quentin Road; it had to move from its original location on Kings Highway and East 16th Street. Owner Robert Gangi said the no-frills bagel store has been in the neighborhood for 53 years. HB&B’s bagels are slightly smaller, but have no shortage of quality or flavor. Gangi’s baker is extremely secretive about how he makes their bagels. He told me he’d be fired if he gave too much away. The flavor is excellent and the chewiness of the dough is perfect. They may spend slightly less time in the oven than the bagels at Highway Bagels. As a result, the outside is not as hard but still firm. Loyal patrons of HB&B say that’s why they’re the best in the borough.
But I say Highway Bagels wins the Kings Highway bagel war and, thus, the title of Best Bagel in New York City. The little extra work your teeth have to do to get through the crust makes it a superior bagel. The juxtaposition of the crust and the chewy dough is an almost magical experience to the bagel connoisseur. The larger size is fitting for New York City’s most populous borough. It’s so good that I am willing to forgive Highway Bagels for offering a rainbow bagel.
Steve Kastenbaum is Westwood One News's New York Bureau Chief and a senior correspondent. He is a life-long Brooklynite and deeply passionate about bagels.