Oh, except for college basketball, which is something a small segment of the population apparently enjoys somewhat.
That’s all well and good for those who enjoy watching a bunch of tall dudes running up and down and up and down the court (seriously, why is this sport fun?) but we decided to take it one step further.
As you start filling out your March Madness brackets where you’ll have a minuscule chance of getting the hole (get it?) thing right, we took matters into our own hands and created a bracket for a sport we’re both extremely well-versed in: eating.
So: three cars, a 5-pound tub of cream cheese, 14 stores and 28 — yes, 28 — bagels later, we narrowed down the best plain and flavored bagels in town.
Disclaimer: Before you get upset because you do not see your (or your favorite) bagel spot listed on here, don’t forget how many places there actually are to get bagels in this city! We tried to be as inclusive as possible. If we had the power to keep eating without getting full so that we could try every place in and around the city for this task, we would have. But there were only five of us and, sadly, we aren’t wizards.
Note: Our taste-testers included a self-proclaimed bagel connoisseur who has worked in a bagel joint for nine years, a veteran of the restaurant business, two professional eaters — and Jon.
For those who like the simpler things in life, it was only fair to judge plain bagels first, though I wish I saved more of my appetite for Round 2.
Our 14-bracket list came down to Roling’s Bakery in Elkins Park; Brooklyn Bagels in Huntingdon Valley; Delancey Street Bagels in Wynnewood; New York Bagel Bakery in Overbrook; Kaplan’s New Model Bakery in Northern Liberties; High Street on Market in Old City; South Street Philly Bagels, Knead in Washington Square West; LeBus Bakery in Center City; Spread Bagelry in Rittenhouse Square; Metropolitan Bakery in Center City; Four Worlds Bakery in West Philly; Philly Style Bagels in Fishtown; and plain bagels from Trader Joe’s.
As per the arbitrary nature of the NCAA’s bracketology, we awarded first-round byes to South Street and Four Worlds.
Delancey’s slightly sweet version, with a minimal crust and yeasty fermentation, immediately struck a chord with all of us, as did Knead’s, which we thought was the epitome of a good, classic bagel.
Of course, they’re not all winners, which is sometimes (at least in this case) based on our own margin of error.
By accident, some young journalists who shall not be named forgot to pick up plain bagels from Trader Joe’s because they were too distracted by the fascination of pretzel bagels (see Round 2 for more details). Additionally, New York Bagel Bakery accidentally gave us a sesame rather than a plain. Though delicious, it altered our taste-testing judgments and both were eliminated. High Street on Market, like us, was overexcited by the idea of a bagel bracket and skipped the plain bagel altogether and gave two cinnamon raisins instead.
Metropolitan’s bagel was too bready and heavy and left us wanting more than what tasted like bread formed into the shape of a bagel, so LeBus’ sweeter bagel took that round.
Although a previously declared favorite of more than one taster, Spread’s Montreal-style bagels and their pastry-like texture lost to Knead’s more representative East Coast swagger.
Despite their elevated status as two of four kosher entrants (New York Bagel Bakery and Trader Joe’s being the others) neither Roling’s chewier bagels nor Kaplan’s spongy, fluffier bagels made it past the first round.
After four rounds of schmearing and schmoozing, it came down to Delancey vs. Philly Style. The winner: the new kid on the block. Philly Style, which has been open only a few months — although it has racked up impressive raves from bagelscenti unbowed by the shop’s hefty $2/bagel price tag — won because as far as a good ol’ plain bagel went, this one was a standout. We would have been happy with either choice, but overall, the sweetness of the Delancey bagel was just a little too pronounced. The Philly Style, on the other hand, had an impressive balance of substantial crust, toothsome innards and a flavor profile that changed slightly with every chew.
The owners were pleasantly surprised to have won a competition they didn’t even know existed, especially since they’re newer to town.
“There’s so many new bagel shops that have opened and a lot of competition, so it’s quite an honor to have been selected from all the great shops that are around,” expressed Jonathon Zilber, who runs Philly Style Bagels with Collin Shapiro.
That their plain bagel ultimately took home the gold in the category was particularly humbling, he added. As they boil their bagels in beer and also ferment the dough, the plain bagel is truly the one where you can taste the most flavor.
“That’s [the] bagel that it comes through the most because there’s no seed to kind of get in the way of the flavor of the dough,” he said.
They set up shop in Fishtown in January, but they have been working on their recipe and on perfecting their bagel-making since 2013. Their style is much different from those of New York and Montreal, Zilber said, because of the ingredients they use — mainly the beer.
“I think people just have to come out and see what makes our style different from bagels they’ve had,” he said. “You have to try them to understand what makes them different.”
Taste Test Part 2: Flavors of Love
This is where things got interesting — and the food comas commenced.
We based this round on the stores’ recommendation of their most popular or most interesting bagel, but after exactly half of the shops advised an everything bagel — delicious nonetheless — we asked for the second-favorite.
This time around, both Four Worlds and Philly Style got byes (this whole process was more complicated than it looks).
Spread suggested a rye bagel, which had a sweet aftertaste and a bready texture that didn’t evoke much of a bagel-y feel. However, it just barely succumbed to LeBus’ multigrain iteration, which we thought would probably taste better used as a sandwich base than as a traditional bagel.
South Street’s veggie bagel and Knead’s fennel seed-sea salt were both surprisingly disappointing after two of our judges indelicately spit out the veggie (no offense to South Street, but it wasn’t flavorful enough for some of our picky eaters). The fennel seed bagel, while a clear favorite of our more esoteric eater, wasn’t a crowd pleaser.
When faced with the task of choosing a flavored bagel from Trader Joe’s to compete for the grocery store category, we were immediately drawn to the pretzel-flavored bagels because, hello, we’re in Philly. Unfortunately, we definitely set our expectations too high. It had a pretzel-y texture, but lacked that saltily substantial flavor. It definitely would fare better with mustard than with cream cheese. At that point, you might as well just go get a real soft pretzel from the Philly Pretzel Factory.
Kaplan’s and Four Worlds’ everything bagels were noteworthy, the former going the extra mile to coat the top and bottom with seeds, and the latter stepping out of the box with its sourdough everything bagel, which also took the time to be coated on both sides.
We finally got to taste High Street’s cinnamon raisin after skipping Round 1, but it was a little too chewy and thick — more like a delicious fruit bread than a bagel — and it fell to Delancey. But bonus points to High Street for thoughtfully packing its wonderful, house-made cultured butter without even being asked!
Once again, it came down to Philly Style vs. Delancey, both of which were everything bagels. Philly Style’s was overall a solid bagel with terrific seasoning and flavor, but Delancey’s had more character — the slightly sweeter interior proved to be the perfect foil for the explosion of everything on the crust — and we named Delancey the champ this round.
After the idea and location of Delancey Street Bagels just came to him 26 years ago, owner Jan Marc Dorfman started the shop on a whim. The 3,000-square-foot bakery, equipped with an assortment of pastries and coffee, has grown into a well-known business since then.
The bagel dough is mixed and shaped in New York City, of which he said the New York water is key. Once shipped to him, they bake and finish the bagels on site, creating a crunchy outside and a sweet inside.
Instead of baking in large quantities in the mornings and afternoons, they bake small batches all day long so the bagels are as fresh as possible.
“We open up in the morning with a couple dozen of each kind and keep baking all day long,” he added.
Overall, each competitor stepped up (rolled up?) to the plate for the most part and left us feeling very, very full. Though it may take us a few weeks to even look at another bagel, we’re sure we’ll be back for more soon.