The Western-style bagel we have in Los Angeles gradually morphed from its original form to appeal to the tastes and trends of this city. Since most people in L.A. aren't from traditional bagel-eating cultures - i.e., not from New York - and therefore don't have specific allegiance to a particular type of bagel, local bakers have had the freedom to make their bagels their own.
What is a Western-style bagel, anyway? It's a bagel that's typically 4 inches in diameter and up to 2 inches tall, with a somewhat chewy exterior and a lightly fluffy interior. This is opposed to a New York-style bagel, which is smaller and denser, and a Montreal-style bagel, which is boiled in a honey solution.
To pick 10 of the best bagels in this town, we sampled breads that were boiled - which is what makes a bagel a bagel - and then pan- or hearth-baked. We avoided national chains, such as Einstein's and the (very, very good) Original Brooklyn Water Bagel, and at each stop, we tried one plain, one everything, a poppy seed and a wild card. (No fruit, seasonal or novelty bagels.)
We were looking for the perfect balance of crispy outside and flavorful, well-textured interior. What we were not looking for was the best imitation of a bagel from another city. If you miss your Polish obwarzanek, or your East Coast edition, we understand your plight, but this is not the list to help on your quest. If you want a great local bagel, here are 10 you might truly love.
10. Milo and Olive
If appellation d'origine contrôlée designations were required in the United States, this bagel would be pinned securely to the Santa Monica map. It's a modern and unencumbered interpretation. Made daily, in small batches, the wide bagel comes in plain, sesame and poppy seed. It has a light gamboge exterior, and a pale, whole wheat - flecked interior. As the folks here are bread baking artists, it's no surprise that the bagel has an interior of loose, not quite even holes, creating an airy, toothsome crumb that is utterly satisfying when toasted. Our only qualm is that they charge $1.50 to add a single pat of ultra-rich Plugra butter to the $2 item. Go for the cream cheese instead. Available at Milo and Olive and, in extremely limited quantities, at the Mid-City and Pico Boulevard Sweet Rose Creamery locations. 2723 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 453-6776.
9. Sam's Bagels
For more than 35 years, the folks at Sam's Bagels have been serving their large, twisty bagels to a grateful public. Thanks to the excellent foot traffic in the area (and despite or maybe because of the spin class and yoga studio attendees), they sell out of almost everything, daily. What the Sam's bakers make is at once a hearty - due to the size - and a light, handmade bagel. The bread is chewy without being tough, but what distinguishes the bagels here is the terrific overall flavor, whether plain or embellished. (The dark garlic version in particular is worth seeking out.) 150 N. Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 469-1249.
8. New York Bagel
Since they took over the Frank Gehry-designed bakery in 2003, owners Patra Kittichanthira and Ted Cichowski have added plenty of appealing, health-conscious food to their burgeoning menu. What they didn't change are the bagels (or the people baking them - points for creating long-term jobs!) that have been coming out of the oven since 1991. Appealing to East Coasters and locals alike, the bagels have a crackly crust and bone-colored interior that is soft, subtle and satisfying. Reflecting the neighborhood, the prices are a bit higher than elsewhere, but they also have free parking and a great space with cool photography and a family-friendly vibe. 11640 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 820-1050.
7. Bueller's Bagels
This tiny bakery is wedged onto the eastern end of a small strip mall (with super-tight parking) in West L.A. The cash-only spot - don't worry, there's an ATM next door - has been making bagels for more than 20 years for a steady stream of loyal customers. The bagel itself skews small, with a shine to the crust. No matter what type you get, you'll notice that they use a light hand when coating the bagels. (Our favorite variety is the sunflower seed.) Like many other bagel shops, Bueller's runs out of flavors fast and closes early, so call ahead to order. Oh, and don't skip the fantastic chive whipped cream cheese. 10840 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 474-6064.
6. The Bagel Broker
For more than 25 happy years, the Bagel Broker has been feeding the bread-loving masses in Mid-City. It can boast having the best pumpernickel in town and a cormeal rye that will set your heart aflutter with its crunchy, salty roughness. There is almost always a line here but service is swift. This is also the only shop on this list that properly (read: fully) toasts its bagels. The whipped cream cheese comes in a variety of flavors. And if you're so inclined, Bagel Broker's version of a baker's dozen is 14 bagels. Not bad. Not bad at all. 7825 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 931-1258.
5. Brooklyn Bagel Bakery [TEMPORARILY CLOSED]
There are many things that make this place special: the off-beat location, the fact that it started in New York and has been here since the '40s, the association with the original International Beigel Bakers Union. There's also dedication to craft, a sense of purpose and a loyalty to the retail and numerous wholesale customers. The water bagels are essentially flawless, crispy on the outside and with the perfect amount of give to the bread. It offers an excellent onion bagel, with thin bits of onion mixed with poppy seeds, and excellent poppy-saltwater bagels. (Where salt bagels can be too salty and poppyseed bagels can be one-note, this is the ideal balance.) And for those who like fruit bagels, there are strawberry, blueberry, banana-nut and more. 2217 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 413-4114.
4. Western Bagel
For many Angelenos, Western Bagel is the ultimate nostalgia bagel. It's what most of us grew up eating, at home or at one of the local delis the company sells to. The heavily seasoned and nicely crusted bagels are on the smaller side; the crumb has a strong and very distinct malty flavor that sets it apart. Dense, chewy and well-seasoned, these bagels are hard to beat. As a bonus, the shops also carry gluten-free varieties and offer samples of any bagel. The lines are long but swift and the people behind the counter always seem to be in a good mood. 20516 Devonshire St., Chatsworth; (818) 718-9883; plus 10 other locations.
3. Manhattan Beach Bread & Bagel
What you first notice about a MB bagel is the shine of a superior crust. Then you bite in and realize it's truly a flavorful bagel, verging on perfection, with a tight but tender interior. In the charming community-oriented, family bakery, it's easy to find something for everyone, be it a classic onion or our favorite, the cranberry flaxseed. Manhattan Beach Bread & Bagel also offers a top-notch hummus as an alternative to cream cheese if you're avoiding dairy. If the line is too overwhelming, it can be quickly circumvented with a text-to-pick-up order. 1812 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Manhattan Beach; (310) 545-7553.
2. Red Bread [CLOSED]
Continuing its tradition of using wild yeast to create rustic, robust and tasty food, Red Bread offers a (Western) Montreal-style bagel. This means that the stirrup-shaped bagel is hand-formed and poached in a honey solution before being baked. The bagels then are dredged with a thick layer of poppyseeds, which make them look like they somehow fell onto a black sand beach. The seeds balance the subtle sweetness from the honey, which lingers on the palate. When you bite through the thin crust, you find dense and chewy dough that reflects the tanginess of the vibrant sour starter. Made in very small batches, the bagels come in plain, poppyseed and the subtle olive oil-semolina version at the Santa Monica farmers market on Wednesdays or at the shop in Culver City. Unsurprisingly, the 100% organic bagels sell out quickly. 13322 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City, (424) 272-5752.
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1. Bagel Factory
This kosher certified bakery, with three locations, has been churning out excellent, dense, cornmeal-dusted bagels since 1987. Each storefront hosts a constant stream of customers of all sizes, shapes and nationalities. We love that they also offer a 40-cent mini bagel for those times when the whole thing is a bit too much. The bagels come in the usual assorted flavors, including an outstanding dark Russian version. The everything has a thick coating of sesame, poppyseed, garlic and cornmeal, which lends a bit of crunch to the whole affair. These bagels have a hint of sweetness and the ideal amount of give when you bite into them, making them incredibly satisfying to eat. And don't forget to pick up some vegan kosher Soup by Sonny's, possibly the perfect compliment to a toasted bagel. 8986 Cadillac Ave.
Los Angeles; 310-836-9865. 21157 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance; 310-540-2077. 3004 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles; 310-477-8460.