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The bagel: an L.A. story

"Most people choose the bagel they grew up with," says Richard Friedman, and for most Southern Californians, whether they know it or not, that means the choice is bagels made either by Friedman or his oldest competitor.

Though there is a wealth of Jewish delis in Southern California, most of the best-known buy their bagels from either Friedman's 55-year-old Brooklyn Bagel Bakery or Steve Ustin's 61-year-old Western Bagel. If you eat at Nate 'n Al, Langer's, Art's or Factor's delis, you prefer Brooklyn's bagels. If you prefer Brent's or Mort's, you're a Western Bagel person.

Certainly there are other bagel bakeries in the area, including the Bagel Broker in the Fairfax District and the kosher Bagel Factory outlets on the Westside and in Torrance. And there are a few delis that bake their own, including Junior's and Canter's. But judging by the sheer numbers of bagels delivered every day to L.A.'s biggest delis, the two bagel giants have been defining our bagel appetites for decades.

Brent's Deli in Northridge has been keeping Western Bagel busy for 41 years. At 3 p.m. on a Tuesday, Brent's parking lot is so crowded there's a valet service. Owner Ron Peskin, wearing a vibrant yellow aloha shirt, points out family members at work in the restaurant as he explains how this and the Westlake Village location together go through 700 dozen bagels a week.

Nate 'n Al in Beverly Hills gathers crowds that can wait up to an hour for a menu that features Brooklyn's bagels. The deli buzzes with show business "meets," friends table-hopping and conversations continuing from yesterday or last week.

The Mendelson brothers who run the deli, Mark, 43, and David, 40 -- grandsons of Al Mendelson, who with Nate Reimer started the deli in 1945 -- figure their bagel order from Brooklyn Bagel has been in the multiple thousands per week.

This is where the "Jewish pacifier" -- a bagel on a string for teething tots -- was popularized by the late Kaye Coleman, a Nate 'n Al waitress for 37 years. At Coleman's funeral, Larry King, a Nate 'n Al regular, delivered her eulogy and all the attendees wore bagels on strings around their necks in her honor. (Her uniform is displayed in a frame on a restaurant wall.)

Friedman is not a stickler for a particular-size bagel and does not have a problem tweaking his recipe here and there to suit a customer, but he has been raised in a strict bagel-making tradition. Sitting in his glass-enclosed office looking out over his Brooklyn Bagel factory, the scene does not appear to have changed much in five decades.

It's a vision right out of a California noir movie. He is a self-avowed workaholic, a devoted bagel maker who starts work most days at 5:30 a.m., continuing on with that "good recipe" created by his grandfather in New York and passed on to his father and then to him.

Setting the standard

Louis Friedman, Richard's grandfather, was a founding member of New York's International Beigel Bakers Union in 1927 and membership required a union sponsor and a long, unpaid apprenticeship. A bagel could not be made outside this union and its strict baking rules. Bagels were all handmade and a baker could be identified by his signature work.

"Definitely, good bagel making springs from that union," says Sanford Brody, the 77-year-old owner of the 35-year-old Bagel Factory, which bakes only kosher bagels.

Richard's father, Seymour, went through the union ranks and in 1953 brought the recipe west, opening Brooklyn Bagel Bakery on West Adams Boulevard. He relocated to the current location on a very unglamorous stretch of Beverly Boulevard in 1965. Richard officially took the reins in 1981.

Ustin, 60, the very businesslike owner of Western Bagel, based in Van Nuys, oversees a different sort of bagel empire. Western's operations include 10 retail shops along with the wholesale deliveries to major delis, as well as shipping to stores and markets as far away as Japan and France.

Western, Ustin says, was established by his father, Dave, in 1947, when Los Angeles was a "bagel wasteland." It now can produce 60,000 bagels an hour, he says.

A good bagel is essential to a good deli and patrons have definite opinions about what satisfies. "Nate 'n Al must have a real New York bagel," Mark Mendelson says. "Our customers know the difference." Brooklyn's Friedman interprets that as a hearth-baked (baked right on the bottom of the oven) water bagel with a dense, rich, chewy texture and slightly crisp crust.

Brent's Peskin, however, prefers the Western pan-baked (baked in the oven on sheets) -- creating a lighter, softer bagel. His bestsellers are water, onion and sesame, and he admits that it would be difficult for him to serve a bagel he doesn't like "and that would include a cranberry or a chocolate chip."

A matter of trust

Art's Delicatessen can't get enough sesame seed bagels. Harold Ginsburg, 47, Art's son, says that Brooklyn pan-bakes the restaurant's bagels and, in addition to the sesame, his customers go for the onion, water and poppy seed.

There is a tremendous loyalty between these bagel bakers and their big deli clients. Friedman says, "It's more like a partnership; customers have needs. I must fill them, even anticipate them."

For Benjies New York Deli, a 41-year-old, second-generation deli in Santa Ana, Brooklyn makes a special onion bagel (it also goes to Nate 'n Al), mixing poppy seed, onion and garlic right into the dough and sprinkling a little on top before baking.

Norm Langer, whose Langer's Deli is across from MacArthur Park, says: "I can't sell a sesame bagel in this neighborhood." Brooklyn delivers his most popular bagels: onion, water and egg. Langer says bagel preferences reflect the change in his neighborhood since 1947, when the area was predominantly Jewish.

Some of the delis that serve these bagels are as long-lived as the bakeries themselves and many are family-owned, some going on the fourth generation.

Friedman believes "quality and on-site owners make a difference in a business, my business too. We all know or knew the parents and the families and there is a pride in getting it right."

In the inner circle

You can feel the family presence in these delis -- the schmoozing, the concern that customers enjoy what they eat. And, though these are rival businesses, the families that own them go way back. When Factor's threw a giant 60th anniversary party this year, owners Debbie Markowitz Ullman, 45, and sister Suzee Markowitz, 50, ran out of corned beef so they called Nate 'n Al to truck some over. Debbie says, "This goes on all the time; we send rye bread when they run low."

Their father, Herman, the original owner of Factor's, began his deli work at Nate 'n Al and one Halloween Debbie and Suzee even dressed as Nate and Al.

Nate 'n Al's David Mendelson went to Brent's Deli for computer lessons to take his restaurant out of "the dark ages."

Bagel mavens all, they agree on a few bagel principles in their restaurants: Serve the bagels only on the day they're delivered. Don't freeze them. Turn leftovers into bagel chips or donate them to charities.

At Langer's, a call comes through to the front desk. It is Friedman ordering his daily lunch to be picked up curbside. It's not the deli's famous pastrami but a salad. "I never eat deli food," he says.

But, almost every morning at his factory, he eats a bagel -- plain, hearth-baked -- with a little butter. "I never get tired of my bagels," he modestly reports.

Jeanson is a freelance writer.

food@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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