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After eating East Coast bagels, a look at what the PNW has to offer

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Some bagels with Everything seasoning sit on a wire rack in Nancy Leson's kitchen. They're golden brown and fresh out of the oven.
Nancy Leson
/
KNKX
Some bagels with Everything seasoning sit on a wire rack in Nancy Leson's kitchen. They're fresh out of the oven and golden brown.

It’s been said, usually by people from there, that bagels are better on the East Coast than they are in the Northwest. But KNKX food commentator Nancy Leson – who grew up in Philadelphia – isn’t sure that’s still true.

Nancy and I spent part of the holidays at opposite ends of New Jersey. I was up north with my partner's family near New York City. She was in the south, near Philly, with members of her family.

For me, a New Jersey bagel is a revelatory experience. A real I-didn't-know-they-could-be-this-good kind of moment, especially when you add pork roll and egg and cheese and ... I'm sorry, where were we?

Ah, right. For Nancy, bagels on the East Coast are a taste of home — harking back to Saturdays when she'd go to her grandparents' house, and her granddad would go to the local Jewish deli and bring back bagels, smoked fish and cheeses. Happiness.

But in recent years, the Northwest has seriously upped its bagel game.

“I’ve lived here over 30 years, and I watched the bagel scene get really big in the '90s with some places that started smaller or were national chains that were quite good, and then they – BOOM – disappeared,” she said. “And now what we’re seeing are these little bagel bakeries.”

Some are pop-ups. Some have grown, like Eltana, which sells Montreal-style bagels. And there are others, like Zylberschtein's Delicatessen & Bakery and Rachel’s Bagels and Burritos.

And while Nancy hasn’t gotten to as many of the newer places as she wants, she still stands by her old standby, Bagel Oasis in Ravenna, whose pumpernickel bagels she adores, and she’s also a fan of the new Rubinstein Bagels location in Capitol Hill.

“What I loved so much about that place was not so much that the bagel was great – and it was – but that I got a bagel sandwich. … They said, ‘Do you want it open face?’ How did they know? I don’t eat my bagel sandwich any other way.”

An open-faced bagel sandwich with lox, capers, cream cheese and red onion, from Rubinstein's Bagels in Seattle.
Nancy Leson
/
KNKX
When Nancy Leson ordered this bagel sandwich -- with cream cheese, lox, capers and red onion -- they asked her if she wanted it open-faced. It's like they read her mind.

So, what’s a good bagel?

The best answer is “one that makes you happy.” But here are Nancy’s criteria on what to look for:

  • Boiled, then baked – not steamed.
  • Whether they’re made in-house or at the least nearby.
  • Fresh! Best if you can get them the same day they’re baked.

“Truthfully, bagels that have been sitting around for a day or two are not at their best,” Nancy said. “I like to get them hot out of the oven.”

MAKE YOUR OWN

One of the reasons Nancy hasn’t hit as many of the new bagel bakeries as she’d like is because she makes her own. In fact, that’s what she was doing when I dropped by to chat with her.

I’ve probably admitted before that baking scares me — all chemistry and hope, with little chance for course correction. When you cook, at least you can thin out a sauce or give the soup a little more seasoning. But I’m here to tell you that Nancy’s bagel recipe is easy and delicious. Click here to download it in PDF form.

Nancy had me rolling bagels in no time, and it wasn’t long before we were feasting on fresh-out-of-the-oven bagels, with “Everything” seasoning on both sides.

That’s right, both sides. We threw caution to the wind, and it was delicious.

Ed Ronco came to KNKX in October 2013 as producer and reporter for KNKX’s Morning Edition. Ed started in public radio in 2009 at KCAW in Sitka, Alaska, where he covered everything from city government, to education, crime, science, the arts and more. Prior to public radio, Ed worked in newspapers, including four years at the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune, where he covered business, then politics and government.
Nancy Leson is an award-winning food writer, radio personality, cooking instructor and public speaker who learned much of what she knows about food during her first career: waiting tables. Seattle readers know her as the mouth that scored — for the better part of two decades — as restaurant critic and food columnist for the Seattle Times. These days, when she’s not chatting about recipes or interviewing makers and shakers in the food world for KNKX, she helps end hunger, one loaf at a time, as the Edmonds hub coordinator for the Community Loaves project. Find her @nancyleson and at nancyleson.com.