California Bagels? New York Begs to Differ

The New York Times’ praise for West Coast versions inspires a fresh look at the city’s most iconic baked good.


Helen Stone

The simple exterior of Absolute Bagels nestled between a hair salon and a supermarket is no indicator of the magic that happens inside. Made fresh everyday, their bagels are the epitome of New York.

New York is famous for many things that attract millions of tourists every year; think of skyscrapers, cheesecake, museums, the hustle and bustle of the subway. But if there is one thing that signifies New York to true New Yorkers, it is our bagels. 

With doughy goodness on the inside and crispy shell on the outside, the New York bagel is iconic. Brought to the city by Jewish immigrants living on the Lower East Side in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the carbohydrate-heavy treat is now enjoyed by all New Yorkers, regardless of their religion or social background. 

So when I opened Instagram on March 8th, 2021 to see that The New York Times Cooking section had posted a story by Tejal Rao claiming that the best bagels came from none other than New York’s rival, California, I was astonished. More than astonished, I felt betrayed. “This is absolute blasphemy,” said Edie Fine ’21, who shared my sentiment.

With my newfound animosity towards the Times, I knew I needed to prove them wrong. Even if California has one or two good bagel joints, the quality, culture, and community of a New York bagel is unmatched. Absolute Bagels, the modest little bagel shop on Broadway between 107th and 108th in Morningside Heights in Manhattan is the perfect example of this.

Here is Absolute Bagels’ array of bagels from which to choose, including all of the classics: plain, everything, sesame, poppyseed, cinnamon raisin, egg, pumpernickel, and more. “New York Bagels are not just inherently better [than California’s] and made with more masterful recipes and traditions, but they are also deeply rooted in New York City culture,” said Edie Fine ’21. (Helen Stone)
Like many of its counterparts across the city, Absolute Bagels is a simple, unpretentious storefront. Inside, there are a few tables and chairs. Above weathered tile floors hangs a lightbox menu behind their array of cream cheeses. My family has been going to Absolute Bagels (informally “Absolute”) for thirteen years. The workers have watched me grow up, they know us when we walk in, and I can confidently say that their bagels are some of the best in New York. This means that they are some of the best in the country, because nobody has better bagels than New York, obviously. 

The shop was started 30 years ago by Sam Thongkrieng. “He was a worker for Ess a Bagel, where he learned to make bagels, and then he started this business,” said Mick Pappa, another member of the large Thai family that runs Absolute Bagels. The shop started gaining popularity in the neighborhood five or six years after opening, and now they are a household name on the Upper West Side. On weekend mornings, they have got a line that runs down the block and wraps around the corner — of people patiently waiting for a bite of the warm doughy goodness being baked inside. “We try to make the line go fast. Something that we do is accept only cash. Especially on weekends, we put in more workers, so we can serve faster,” said Pappa.

“We never have day-old bagels,” said Pappa. Oftentimes when picking up a half dozen bagels to last the week, the paper bag is warm in my hands and the mouth watering smell wafts up; it is hard to resist the temptation to rip into one the hot bagels. “We have limited capacity, so everything that we make is for that day. We can’t make it for the next day or the day after that, because we don’t have room,” explained Pappa.

The line outside of Absolute Bagels on a Saturday morning goes down the block and wraps all the way around the corner. People are eager to get their hands on a warm fresh treat for breakfast. (Helen Stone)

What makes Absolute Bagels special — beyond the incredible quality of their main product — is their prominence in the community. “I know a lot of people in this neighborhood and we’ve become part of the neighborhood,” said Pappa. “My boss told me when he first started that he saw a lot of buildings around here because it’s a residential area, so we get customers from this area and they start to get to know you; that’s what we start to see here. A community.” 

Absolute Bagels is not the only great bagel spot in New York City, however. There are dozens across all five boroughs (another factor that makes New York bagels unbeatable — there are so many). H&H Bagels is a beloved and well known bagel shop on the Upper East Side, with a location on the Upper West Side as well, serving the city since 1972. “H&H is in my neighborhood, but it’s about a 20 minute walk, right next to my synagogue,” said Izzi Holmes ’21. “This meant it was always the bagel that broke fasts with my family, or the one I got when I was starving after Hebrew school or a long temple service. Since then it’s become special, because I would go every other weekend after skating practice with my dad, occasionally with a skating friend in tow after we’d been on the ice all morning.”

There is Bagel Bob’s on East 10th Street, between Washington Square Park and Union Square, which serves the classic New York bagel, among other items. “My go-to order is a sesame bagel toasted with butter, but also sometimes a pizza bagel if I’m feeling fancy,” said Julia Sperling ’21. Like most other bagel shops, Bagel Bob’s is more than just a place to grab a bite to eat for Sperling, “I’ve been going there for eight years. I have a bagel from there every Sunday before I teach Hebrew school,” she said.

An old fashioned light box displays the menu hanging above Absolute Bagels’ spread of cream cheeses. “My order is a plain bagel with tofutti,” said Hannah Reing, Fieldston ’23. “I always used to go to Absolute Bagels with my dad, so it now reminds me of my childhood.” (Helen Stone)

In Jamaica, Queens, there is Bagels ‘N Cream Cafe which opened in 1994. “They have great bagels,” said Saamiya Ahmed ’22. “My go to order is ‘everything bagel with scallion cream cheese,’ as the flavors are literally just perfect. My family has been going to this cafe for over ten years, so it’s our tradition to go there now.”

Another New York classic, Murray’s Bagels (Now Zucker’s Bagels and Smoked Fish) in Chelsea is a favorite of Edie Fine ’21. “I’ve had many favorite bagel spots throughout my life, and in each of them, I’ve cultivated some sort of sentimental relationship. Murray’s/Zucker’s has always been my home spot — I remember the smell and feel of the store from standing in the long line with my dad as a five-year-old,” Fine said. “My favorite is a toasted cinnamon raisin bagel with scallion cream cheese.”

In the words of Mick Pappa, “Bagels are something that are distinctive to New York.” Not California. They might have their beaches and surfer dudes and vegan restaurants, but nobody out-does New York in the bagel department. “The experience of having a New York bagel and knowing it’s a New York Bagel is special in itself,” said Holmes. 

The vast number of incredible bagel shops, the enclave of a community that each bagel shop creates in its neighborhood, the relationships that it fosters, and the pride that New Yorkers hold in our bagels will always be superior to California. So I am sorry New York Times, but this is one story that has your local readers choking on their smoked salmon. Take the advice of Julia Sperling and “stick to real news, not satire.”

“New York Bagels are not just inherently better [than California’s] and made with more masterful recipes and traditions, but they are also deeply rooted in New York City culture,” said Edie Fine ’21