As the world’s largest melting pot of cultures, New York City is home to various ethnic cuisines—there’s something for everyone! You’re less likely to get homesick from being deprived of food choices in New York than anywhere else in the world. For all the food aficionados out there, there are endless possibilities of foods to sample. And the most iconic of all, hands down, are Bagels.
When I arrived in New York on a chilly Sunday in April 2019, still jet-lagged and clueless as to how to embark on my most exciting adventure yet, I hopped on the subway and headed to Washington Square Park, the place I’d missed the most since my first visit to the city in 2013. On my brisk walk to the park, I caught this little bagel shop out of the corner of my eye and realized I hadn’t felt hungry because of my overwhelming excitement of being back in the city again. I stormed in, naively thinking I was about to get another one of those rolls with a hole in the middle that I always loved, and that I had eaten a lot of, except in New York.
What’s so special about a New York bagel? Originating in the Jewish community, bagels are a staple of the city, and have become popular around the globe. Bagels come in many delicious flavors—plain, sesame seed, poppy seed, cinnamon raisin, and “everything”—and are usually paired with cream cheese of a dozen more choices, including plain, scallion, jalapeño, lox (salmon), tuna, whitefish, strawberry and even special ones such as Nutella. Alternatively, if you’re in the mood for something more filling (not that a bagel with cream cheese isn’t) and nutritious, as I most often am for lunch, you can also get it with eggs, meat or veggies. Most bagel shops also offer their own bagel menus for you to choose from.
Every New Yorker has a go-to bagel that he or she adores and would defend passionately—the flavor, the texture, toasted or untoasted, cream cheese or butter. According to the owner of Murray’s Bagels, a famed bagel shop in Greenwich Village, “A bagel should be a bit of a struggle to bite into. That’s what a true New York bagel is all about.” On National Bagel Day (yes, there is a day dedicated to the beloved bagels) just a couple of weeks ago, mayor Bill de Blasio weighed in by proclaiming that his favorite bagel is whole wheat with extra cream cheese at The Bagel Hole in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
So there I was, sitting on a bench near the dog run in Washington Square Park, and savoring each bite of my tuna melt on an onion bagel, I was completely blown away by its texture, its chewiness. It was unlike any other bagel I ever had before. I’ve always had a thing for chewy food (e.g., pasta cooked al dente, and doughy pizza), so with the sensational Beethoven’s 9th symphony playing in my head, these bagels became the newest addition to my most heavenly food rankings.
I began cooking up ideas about how to turn my new obsession with bagels into something long-lasting and that I could bring home to remember the city by. Since I couldn’t write songs or poems or paint (…yet), I thought I’d at least try as many different bagels and flavors as I could. I would document every single one I tried in a list, with the date, flavor, and an emoji to denote how I liked it.
It has been almost a year since that glorious day in the park when I started my “Grand Bagel Project,” and typed out my first entry with slightly greasy fingers. You can imagine how many pictures of bagels I have on my phone, and what recommendations are up my sleeve from my own adventures, and New Yorkers I’ve come to know.
“Brooklyn Gino” on an everything bagel became my go-to at Tompkins Square Bagels. It has grilled chicken, broccoli leaves, and pesto. It’s a savory order that always satisfies my bagel cravings and has never failed to impress the friends I took there from Asia and Europe to have their very first New York bagels. (An “everything” bagel is topped with a mixture of every topping used in the bakery, so there might be sesame, poppy seeds, onion flakes, pretzel salt, and pepper on a single bagel, hence the name everything)
For newcomers and locals alike, it can be a little confusing to navigate a bagel shop. When you walk in for the first time, you may be dazzled by the food counters that contain meat and a myriad of colorful, gelato-like cream cheese selections. You look up to find several separate menus. There are customers scattered around everywhere in the shop, and no signs telling you where to line up, or any staff noticing your presence.
Bagel shops vary, but usually, you order from someone behind the food counter, and then you proceed to the register to pay before you join the messy crowd and stand somewhere in the shop waiting for the staff to shout and hand you your order.
My bagel mission continues, as the allure of a great bagel only grows stronger. For those of you who haven’t dared to venture into a crowded bagel shop in New York, just know that I too, was totally at a loss, but after my millionth bagel order, I am proud to say that walking into any bagel place in New York, however chaotic it may seem, is like coming home.
The best tip I have for your first bagel quest is to don a New Yorker attitude—be courageous and shameless in asking for your order—and rest assured that it will all be worth it the minute you bite into that chewy, crusty, creamy little treat from heaven.
*Loren Chih-Ping Lin is an international student at Manhattan Language, where she is currently honing her (already impressive) English skills, and learning art in New York, a city that she considers the most “artistically messy” place in the world. Other than bagels, she loves puppies, funny sitcoms, and Broadway shows. Her New Year’s Resolution for 2020 includes learning to pole dance in a unicorn onesie. She is originally from Taiwan.