Old School Favorite: Kaufman's Bagel & Delicatessen
New School Favorite (tie): Reno
New School Favorite (tie): Little Goat
If someone would have asked me last year about the best bagel in Chicago, I would have shrugged my shoulders and pleaded ignorance. No one argued that Chicago had a serious bagel culture like New York or even Montreal. In fact, the only good bagels I heard anyone discuss were located outside the city limits.
I never would have considered putting together this list until Reno opened next to my place and started serving seriously good bagels (so good, I included them on my best bites of 2012). Then Little Goat got into the game. With a rumored Brendan Sodikoff also on the way*, I realized we were in something of a bagel boom and that it was time to take stock. Does Chicago actually have some bagels worth celebrating?
*Note: I considered waiting for Sodikoff's new restaurant to open, but didn't want to keep pushing this feature back. Though it's rumored to be up soon, openings have a tendency not to go as scheduled. I'll try to update this post as soon as it is ready to go.
While looking for places to include, much of my research pointed to the northern suburbs for the best place to look for old school joints. Places like Skokie have had large Jewish populations for years, so it makes sense that there are a number of local Jewish businesses catering to them. But I also wanted to include some businesses in Chicago, and I found a couple places with enthusiastic followings. In the end, I went with six different places, figuring that would give me a good cross-section of the Chicago bagel scene.
*Editor's Note: Chicago Bagel Authority was originally included in this feature. I realized after the fact that it doesn't actually produce its own bagels, so I have removed it. Sorry about the confusion, and thanks to those that pointed this out.
- Kaufman's Bagel & Delicatessen
- New York Bagel & Bialy Corporation
- NYC Bagel Deli
- Little Goat
What Makes a Great Bagel?
But before I started, I realized I needed a handy definition of a great bagel. Personally, I find it much easier to point to what's wrong with most bagels—too big, doughy, and tough—than what is good about them.
For help, I turned to an expert on the subject, our very own Ed Levine. Serious Eats New York has looked for the best bagels on a couple of occasions, and combining a few of Levine's own written statements I came up with this handy definition of a great bagel: Bagels should be "chewy, crunchy, and, blessedly, not too sweet" with a "salty-malty-sweet balance."
Here's an unfiltered Levine quote about the winner of the 2009 best bagel search, The Bagel Hole:
"It makes a satisfying crunching sound when I bit into it; the exterior actually required the use of my teeth; it was a lovely dark brown color; it was moist and almost light on the inside, and it wasn't absurdly large. No sign of bagel elephantiasis on this puppy."
To Toast or Not to Toast
Whether or not one is supposed to toast a bagel is a surprisingly touchy subject. For some, the very idea of tossing a bagel in a toaster is sacrilegious, but there is no doubt that the vast majority of bagels sold in the city are toasted and smeared with cream cheese. In the end, I decided that the best way to judge each was to leave them untoasted. I think this put some places at a disadvantage, but it was the best way to go.
The idea was to gather up a bunch of bagels and crown one the "best." Taking The Heisen-Bagel Uncertainty Principle into account ("The act of transporting a bagel to a second location produces fundamental uncertainties in its inherent qualities") I knew that I had to evaluate the bagels immediately, instead of bringing them all back to a neutral location. Though it would make side by side comparisons more difficult, it allowed me to try each at its peak. To equalize the finding, I created a scoring rubric to help quantify the results.
But after the third location, I realized that this method wasn't going to work. I had only visited three places, and my two favorite were wildly different from each other. To be more specific, the bagels had a generation gap that was almost impossible to breach. Both of the new entries, Reno and Little Goat, served bagels that were skinnier and used a darker flour. They were also much more expensive.
So where does that leave us? Mostly, this is a good thing. For the first time, there are actual bagel options in Chicago. The newer bagels offer a distinct style, which is unique and shows obvious care. But if you don't like the newer style, or the idea of paying three to four times as much for each bagel seems absurd, a couple places do old school bagels right. Hopefully, this is only the beginning of the bagel trend.
Check out the results by clicking on the slideshow.