J.’s ‘bagel columnist’ takes on the New York Times

“You guys got shafted!”

That’s what customers have been telling at least one local bagel-maker, and probably others, in the wake of last month’s New York Times Magazine article about Bay Area bagels.

The lengthy piece — headlined “Why is it so hard to get a great bagel in California?” — created quite a kerfuffle in these parts. Even KQED’s Michael Krasny devoted an hour of his “Forum” radio show to the topic.

The piece, written by a San Francisco–based freelance journalist, led to three main discussion points: 1) Is it true that you can’t find a bagel in the Bay Area that’s as good as a New York bagel? 2) Are bagels in New York really items of perfection, or do we automatically confer mythical status upon them? 3) Why were some darned good local bagel-makers not mentioned even though their products are closer to a “New York bagel” than some of the bagel-makers that were cited?

Jenny Puente, co-owner of San Francisco’s House of Bagels for 10 years, grew up 30 miles outside of Manhattan and has a Jewish heritage that includes “knowing bagels and every other New York deli and bakery item like the back of my hand.” Her bagel shop was not mentioned in the piece.

Bagels made by Sour Flour in San Francisco

“House of Bagels has been boiling and baking, on stone, real, authentic, artisan New York bagels for over 50 years,” she said. “The recipe was brought to San Francisco from Brooklyn in 1962. It was the first boiled bagel west of the Mississippi, and just because it is made on the West Coast does not lessen its authenticity.”

When she first read the piece, “I was shocked,” Puente said. “House of Bagels is not hard to find. You Google ‘Bagels in San Francisco’ and we pop up. The author did not do her homework … I wrote to the New York Times (www.tinyurl.com/sfhob-letter) but haven’t heard back. A lot of our customers were very upset. I think it made our family feel bigger, as well as grow bigger, to have so many people rally around us.”

Customers also rallied around three other Bay Area favorites: Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels in Palo Alto (like House of Bagels, a perennial winner in J.’s annual Readers’ Choice awards), Authentic Bagel Company in Oakland and Sour Flour in San Francisco.

“There’s obviously a lot of emotion and differing opinions that go into people’s thoughts on bagels, but many people tell me that we make bagels like they remember from back home in New York, Philadelphia or other places back East,” said Danny Gabriner, proprietor of Sour Flour, a small but growing bakery that makes upwards of 800 bagels a week. They’re sold at a couple of farmers markets, online, at a few local cafés and given away for free on Monday mornings at the La Victoria bakery co-op on 24th Street in San Francisco.

Bins of bagels at House of Bagels in San Francisco

“I would have liked to have been mentioned,” Gabriner continued, “because we are one of the companies out here doing a good job of making bagels. I know all the other bagel-makers that were in the article, and even though we don’t have as much visibility, oftentimes our quality is better — though we do have some variables in batches because we use a sourdough starter. And we charge just a dollar; some of the others are charging $3.50 for a bagel.”

Gabriner ate “plenty” of bagels when he attended New York University. His favorite was Absolute Bagels on the Upper West Side, but he loved popping into any corner market or deli and scoring a quality product. “People often ask me if we have a New York–style bagel,” he said. “But even in New York, you have so many different kinds of bagels. An H&H is different from an Absolute which is different from an Ess-a.” And now there are “artisan” bagel places in New York, too, such as Black Seed Bagels.

The New York Times piece didn’t really endorse any local bagels, aside from Schmendricks, a San Francisco pop-up whose storied one-year run ended in late 2012. Other mentions went to Berkeley-based Baron Baking, which supplies Saul’s Deli in Berkeley and Shorty Goldstein’s in San Francisco; Marla Bakery, a San Francisco eatery that makes good artisan bagels but isn’t a bagel-maker per se; and Beauty’s Bagel Shop in Oakland, which the writer criticized for going Montreal-style rather than making “the New York bagel so many California Jews crave.”

Curiously, much of the piece was devoted to Wise Sons Deli, which at the time didn’t even make bagels. (See “Leftovers” for an update.)

Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels van

“The article was neither here nor there, and I have no reaction to it,” said Israel “Izzy” Rind, who opened Izzy’s 19 years ago. “It’s not that I don’t think highly of my place. I do, and many people think we are very good. But you can’t argue about taste. If one person, the writer, chooses to see things one way, I can’t argue with her. Some people like Noah’s bagels. Who am I to argue? It’s a bit of a fool’s conversation. Some things have nothing to do with the facts — they just give people something to talk about.”

Ryan (R.J.) Gozinsky-Irwin, a partner at Authentic Bagel Company, clearly doesn’t have the same attitude. “I don’t want to diss the writer, but she didn’t do her homework,” he said. “I don’t think they wanted us in the article. There was a phone call to the shop one time, and then no mention of us again.”

To remedy that, R.J. called Krasny’s “Forum” show and tried to talk up his 3-year-old Oakland shop and how its bagels are a blend of East Coast and West Coast styles, but he didn’t get much air time.

“It’s all good,” he said. “We know we do a great job and put out a great product, and just because the New York Times didn’t write about us isn’t the end of the world. We have a really good following. And our regulars have been coming in and saying, ‘You guys got shafted!’”

JCC CAFÉ CHANGE: Starting next week, the café at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto will be managed by the JCC itself rather than by Yura and Lusine Sargsyan of Haute Cuisine. The Sargsyans have managed Café on the Square since it opened in 2011.

In a statement, JCC officials said, “As our community has grown, we now see opportunities for the OFJCC to create deeper engagement by being more directly involved in the café.”

The café will be closed for a week starting Monday, Aug. 31 to clean, restock and prepare for the change. It will reopen on Sept. 8.

Robert Stayte, former general manager of U.C. Berkeley’s Cal Dining and Cal Catering, has been hired as the OFJCC’s director of culinary services. He is expected to do an overhaul of the menu in the long term, while focusing for now on fresh, local and sustainable ingredients. A new café name and a redesign are expected down the road.

Within the past three years, all four JCC cafés in the Bay Area have had an operator change. In two of the cases — the JCCSF and the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael — the JCCs have taken over management of the cafés, while the café at the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos is run by a nearby House of Bagels.

Leftovers …

Wise Sons Deli recently tweeted: “Looking for photos of Jewish history of the Fillmore District.” Sounds like a plan is in place for decorating Wise Sons’ new bagelry and bakery. Set to open in October or November, the 2,200-square-foot spot in the city’s once heavily Jewish area will operate mainly as a bakery where Wise Sons will prepare its babka, bialys, rye bread and challah. Oh, and bagels, too! A big part of the operation will be Wise Sons Bagel, and as part of that, 300 square feet with seating is being set aside as a retail area where people will be able to buy fresh bagels, shmears, bagel sandwiches, selected deli meats and smoked fish. Wise Sons’ highly anticipated bagel operation was prevented from making its debut seven months ago when a Mission District fire gutted the deli’s commissary kitchen-bakery, but the new location at 1520 Fillmore St., one block south of Geary Boulevard, is in a cool 1920s building with 26-foot ceilings, so hopefully it’s a case of “all’s well that ends well” … The Great Bagel Taste Test has been scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Oct. 11 at Temple Sinai in Oakland. The fundraiser for the Alameda County Community Food Bank will feature a  public sampling of locally made bagels (and shmears), a celebrity tasting panel, bagel trivia, and a raffle for bagels and bagel-making classes. For more information, contact bagel maven Laurie Leiber at (510) 547-8080 or [email protected] … In gluten-free bagel news, Oakland-based Odd Bagel is now available online at www.oddbagel.com in addition to being sold at Saul’s Deli in Berkeley. Also, Ducks and Dragons is a new, gluten-free microbakery in San Mateo that makes Montreal-style bagels; they are available at Berkeley Bowl and several farmers markets on the Peninsula (www.ducksanddragons.com) … Rabbi Alex Shandrovsky, owner of L’Chaim Sushi, which now offers home delivery of meals with entrees like brisket or sesame chicken, sent out an email this week wondering if “Kosher food that does not suck” would be a good slogan for his operation. Hmm. Send your opinion to [email protected] … Peter Levitt, co-owner of Saul’s Deli, said the final plans for the proposed parklet in front of his Berkeley restaurant have been submitted to the city. Construction should take eight to 12 weeks once he gets the green light, he added … Saul’s is offering two Rosh Hashanah dinners, on Sept. 13 and 14. Visit www.saulsdeli.com or call (510) 848-DELI for more information … Berkeley’s Nabolom Bakery, a local institution where many people bought challah year-round and honey cake for Rosh Hashanah, has shut down after 40 years. Nabolom braided its challah with four strands instead of three because it looked better, a former baker told the website Berkeleyside … Taboon, a kosher bakery coming to San Francisco’s rough-and-tumble Sixth Street corridor (between Mission and Howard streets), won’t open until December or January, reports Hoodline.com. That’s three months later than co-owner Isaac Yosef told me in June. Owned by three Israelis who live in the Bay Area, the bakery will make its own pita and other baked goods, and hopes to see people lined up for and chowing down on a Middle Eastern pastry pocket called a sambosak (seven varieties will be offered).

Hardly Strictly Bagels runs once a month.

Send hot tips and out-of-the-way finds to Andy Altman-Ohr at [email protected]

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.