Bagel on the Rise

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ventura County has bagel fever. I got mine 40 years ago.

On Saturdays during the mid-'50s, my mother's sister Frances, secretary to a fish broker, supplied our family with deli-style platters of smoked fish. The platters were enormous: lox, sable, whitefish and sturgeon--briny, buttery fish cut into thick slices and hefty chunks--and huge scoops of Philadelphia-style cream cheese. My aunt also brought brown bags filled with fresh, chewy bagels, usually around three dozen.

In those days, bagels came in three varieties, period: water, onion and egg. Water bagels were eggshell white, with a hard, crisp outer crust. Onion bagels were water bagels with long, blackened onion strings baked onto the bread surface the way polyurethane goes onto a hardwood floor. Egg bagels, which I have never fancied, had a soft texture and a pale orange sheen, the color of melted Creamsicles.

Other varieties didn't exist. Before the onion bagel there was the bialy, an un-boiled flat bread named for Bialystock, a once predominantly Jewish city in eastern Poland. The bagel may also have a Polish pedigree. It is reputed to have originated circa 1683, when a Polish baker created something to pay tribute to his king, Jan Sobiesky. How the word "bagel" became part of our language is sketchy. We know that beugel is an old Austrian word for stirrup, and also that beugen is Middle High German for "to bend."

The best bagels were--and still are, when you can find them--hand rolled by bakers skilled at pinching together elongated strips of dough. Punching or stamping a hole in the dough was considered chicanery to a purist; steaming the dough instead of boiling it, a common way to mass-produce the buns that pass for bagels today, was a sacrilege.

And no bagel ever achieved popularity because it was low in fat. In my childhood, bagels were conduits for fatty, salty foods, functioning like cones do for ice cream. Then some genius figured out that bagels were complex carbohydrates, fuel for runners, triathletes and business people on the run (at around 150 to 200 calories per 3 1/2-ounce bagel, without butter or cream cheese).

What's in a bagel? Well, recipes vary, but ingredients are as follows: high gluten flour, salt, yeast, sugar and, occasionally, malt, plus who knows how many additives in commercial recipes. The '90s bagel also comes gussied up in 31 flavors, laced with exotic substances like chocolate chips, cranberries, jalapenos and sun-dried tomatoes baked into the dough.

Feh is what my grandmother would have said.

So recently, with a little help from my friends, I conducted a rather free-form bagel tasting, visiting eight or nine bagel outlets over a three-day period. As I gathered up the bagfuls, it became clear that uniformity of judgment would not be easy. Bagels taste best about one hour after they are baked, just after they are cool, and it's hard to know how long a bagel has been out of the oven. Another problem is rating criteria. Chewiness, for instance, something I like, is not a quality everyone relishes.

Here is what I found, with a few outside opinions kneaded in. In the end, bagels were evaluated on crispness, chewiness and overall quality. Feel free to take these opinions with a grain of salt. (Or just order a salt bagel.)

And happy noshing, but remember to slice that bagel away from yourself. Bagel injuries are a leading cause of weekend visits to the emergency room.

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Western Bagel is one of the few remaining bagel chains that actually kettle boils its own bagels before baking. The result is an appealingly chewy product without major flaws. The Westlake Village store is big, sterile and bright. Orders are taken at a chest-high, L-shaped counter, behind which a large staff of smiling young people hustles nonstop.

A few of those in my party tasted pumpernickel, water, rye and cranberry bagels from this outlet about four hours after purchase. Tbe consensus was that the outsides were beautifully crisp, but the centers were undercooked and tasted a bit raw. One of my co-workers decided these bagels were made to be toasted and that the extra cooking time would make them perfect.

That may be. It does not, however, address quality of flavorings, which are somewhat generic. Pumpernickel, for instance, lacks the strongly peasant-y character of good German bread, and the pale pink cranberry bagel comes up short due to an artificial aftertaste. Be sure to try one of the fine flavored cream cheeses, whipped up in the back of the store from Kraft brand cream cheese and good ingredients. Especially good are the honey nut raisin and cucumber onion dill.

* Western Bagel, 3825G Thousand Oaks Blvd., Westlake Village. (805) 496-0344. Bagels are 50 to 95 cents.

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Noah's Bagels originated in Berkeley. Today, there are more than 50 outlets nationwide, with the number still growing. The Noah's in Thousand Oaks is located next to a Starbucks Coffee. Why are we not surprised?

Noah's oven-steams their bagels on a conveyor system, then bakes them, resulting in a dense, bread-y type of bagel. These beautiful and strictly kosher breads are technically buns, not bagels.

My informal tasting panel tried egg, poppy seed, New York rye and multi-grain. The consensus was that the dough flavorings were intense and the outsides were nicely crisp, but the inside texture was not for us. None of the bagels were properly chewy or bagel-like. We found them dense, monotonous and generally not what we expect from a good bagel.

One nice thing about Noah's is the atmosphere, a snazzy octagonal tile floor, walls crowded with a genuine Brooklyn Dodger pennant and a photo gallery, including Golda Meir, Leo Durocher, Albert Einstein and early-20th-century New York scenes. Also look for delightful things to eat with bagels, like tempting cuts of smoked salmon, whole smoked whitefish, good cream cheeses called shmears and fine Jewish pastries. (Try cinnamon babka and hamentaschen, a fruit-filled shortbread.)

* Noah's Bagels, 33 N. Moorpark Road, Suite I, Thousand Oaks. (805) 381-9893. Bagels are 50 cents; handmade bialys, 75 cents.

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Downtown Ventura has not one but two quirky places to buy bagels. One is Strimple's, a local institution for 18 years. The other is Donut Queen, where Cambodia-born Key Lim, a former employee of Winchell's, has added a formidable bagel to his doughnut lineup.

Strimple's is a tiny corner storefront run by the jovial Neal Novatt, a large man who gives his customers a large bagel, about 4 to 5 ounces. There are no lox, no tables and no frills in this place, just a puffy, yeasty product with a tiny hole in the center. I ate my bagels here at 7 a.m., when they were still warm. I tasted cheddar, beer, the everything bagel (poppy, sesame, salt and garlic) and a boysenberry raisin, and the varieties were quite distinctive, really identifiable in flavor terms. But ignore the sign reading: "We boil and bake." According to Novatt, he steams.

Donut Queen's Lim credits bagels, and Novatt, with saving his business. The recession hurt, said a co-worker, who generally speaks for Lim. And Novatt, who was a customer, helped teach him the bagel-making process. Lim wouldn't divulge his recipe, but he did acknowledge that his bagels--placed by hand in the kettle for boiling and baked--were sweeter and more cake-like than most of the competition. He also pointed out that there are no tropical oils in his products.

Lim makes three types of bagels: jack, jalapeno and a huge ham and cheese bagel. All three are plain bagels with cheese crusted onto the top, and each is an entire meal for little more than $1.

* Strimple's Bagel Bakery, 989 E. Main St., Ventura. (805) 643-4072. Bagels cost 65 cents to $1.70.

* Donut Queen, 1700 E. Thompson St., Ventura. (805) 653-0203. Bagels are $1.05 to $1.70.

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John Petrillo confides that he saved $5,000 on a real kettle by going with a doughnut fryer, and even more money by baking and rotating his dough in an ordinary convection oven. Petrillo got into the business in the first place because he developed a heart problem, and bagels, he says, have no fat or cholesterol.

John's Bagel Deli makes 22 varieties of a light-colored, small-holed bagel, and they're mostly terrific. These are some of the county's biggest bagels, too, 5 3/4 to 6 1/2 ounces of bread--even more when they are topped with cheese. He uses whole-wheat flour in his recipe and performs little tricks, too, such as neutralizing jalapenos so they won't burn your tongue.

I tasted plain, 10-grain, onion cheddar cheese, and oatmeal, all of which were puffy, chewy and satisfying. On the back of John's menu, it states that there are no preservatives or chemicals in the batter, followed by a list of what he claims many bagel manufacturers use. Among the chemicals listed are cysteine hydrochlorine, fungal proteinase and calcium propionate, a spoilage retardant.

John also includes a lecture about bagel maintenance, including information about storage, freezing and toasting. For the record, he recommends storing bagels in airtight plastic bags, or freezing them in airtight containers.

* John's Bagel Deli, 1706 Erringer Road, Suite No. 3, Simi Valley. (805) 526-8162. Bagels are 50 cents to $1.30.

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Such a Bagel is one of our smallest bagel bakeries, a modest storefront with an out-of-the way Port Hueneme address. Owner and baker Bill Aloia is a cheerful young man who bought the business three years ago. He was taught his craft by the previous owners.

Aloia learned well. He machine rolls and places his bagels in a kettle by hand for boiling, resulting in a toothsome, pretzel-like texture. Part of the credit is due to quality of ingredients; he relies on a high gluten wheat flour and purely natural substances, no pre-mixes or additives.

This isn't a fancy spot. The bakery floor is badly scuffed linoleum, the counter area is drab and the appointments are minimal. All bagels, about two dozen varieties, are on display in one armoire-sized, glass-fronted wooden case. I bought these bagels in the late afternoon and was surprised that they had retained a morning-like softness. Varieties tasted were corn rye, taco, sun-dried tomato, and provolone, all reasonably mild and understated in flavor, with one exception. The taco bagel is loaded with jalapenos, and it kicks like a mule.

* Such a Bagel, 719 W. Channel Islands Blvd., Port Hueneme. (805) 985-1554. Bagels are 50 to 95 cents.

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It isn't really fair to compare the bagels at Trader Joe's to those of retail bakeries. For one thing, they are not likely to be oven fresh, having been stocked en masse from various commercial dealers. Another reason is the price. These bagels are often as inexpensive as 20 cents apiece, a good value if you don't mind a cottony, unpleasant texture and a bland, honey-sweetened aftertaste.

I'd eat them toasted.

All is not lost. Trader Joe's is definitely a fine bet for competitively priced lox, salmon, and low-priced, good-tasting packaged cream cheeses. Great alder-wood cold smoked salmon is cheaper here than in the Northwest. Lox is half the price here, with little or no loss of quality, than it is in many of the aforementioned bagel stores.

* Trader Joe's, 1751 S. Victoria Ave., Ventura. (805) 650-0478. Also 3845 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Westlake Village. (805) 494-5040. A half-dozen bagels are $1.09 and $1.19.

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A note about pretzels.

Kin to the bagel is the pretzel, differentiated by its twisty shape but little else. Traditionally, the dough is about the same: high gluten flour, a touch of malt, salt, yeast and, yes, a bit of sugar. This last ingredient, incidentally, would not have been found in a traditional bagel. To be a true pretzel, the dough is also supposed to be boiled before baking, a nearly lost practice.

If you crave hard pretzels, a box of malty, palm-sized Snyder's of Hanover (Pa.) should satisfy the craving. I'm practically addicted to them, and I have the carpet crumbs to prove it. Soft pretzels, the kind you buy at county fairs, sports venues and shopping malls, aren't boiled, but many people find them more appealing. These pretzels generally are baked at approximately 600 degrees for around six minutes, and the accepted practice is to eat them with mustard.

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