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Battle of the Bagels

by | Dec 5, 2022

photos/Dan Zarin

Bagels are kind of like pizza, in that both inspire passionate debate. Multiple cities claim to have the best style, and like pizza, even a mediocre bagel is still OK if you hide it under enough toppings.

To my taste, the perfect bagel starts with a contrast of textures. The outside should be crunchy but not tough; the inside chewy, well risen, and slightly dense. Toppings should complement the subtle, sweet maltiness of the bagel without overpowering it. 

When I moved to Maine, in 2002, good bagels were hard to find, so I tried making my own (with mixed success) and would grab a baker’s dozen for the freezer whenever I visited New York or Boston. Since then, the bagels on offer in Portland have significantly improved. The time arrived: let the Battle of the Bagels begin! 

On two recent mornings, I drove around town collecting a selection of “everything” bagels (objectively the best kind) from six different shops. At home, my wife and I laid them out on a cutting board and conducted a (mostly) blind taste test (some of them were easily recognizable, but we did our best to remain unbiased). 

We scored each bagel on its texture (40%), taste (40%), appearance (10%), and toppings (10%). The (admittedly utterly subjective) results: 

4th Place (tie): Mister Bagel (599 Forest Ave.)

With its pale, soft exterior, this entry from Portland’s OG bagel shop lacked that winning crunch. The toppings were on the skimpy side (this variety is called “super,” rather than “everything”). Inside, the texture was light and airy, not chewy, making this bagel what traditionalists would call a “roll with a hole.” It would make pretty good sandwich bread, though.

4th Place (tie): Union Bagel Co. (147 Cumberland Ave.)

When Union first opened, back in 2012, their bagels were arguably the best in town. But the competition has gained ground since, and this bagel was just OK. Its malty flavor was excellent, but the dense interior was tough and overworked. (Note: Union Bagel’s shop is currently closed while they focus on wholesale customers; I bought mine down the street, at Coffee Me Up)

3rd Place: Rose Foods (428 Forest Ave.)

Given the long weekend lines and higher-than-average prices, we were surprised this deli near USM didn’t fare better. But their bagel was firmly middle-of-the pack, with a moderately crunchy exterior and an interior that was dry, bready, and only slightly chewy. That said, Rose Foods remains a top destination for a bagel sandwich, with Portland’s best lox, whitefish, and other Jewish deli staples.

2nd Place (tie): The Works Café (15 Temple St.)

If I were to close my eyes and picture a textbook New York bagel, the “works” bagel from this regional chain would be exactly what came to mind. Its exterior was golden and well covered with toppings, although I would have preferred a more pronounced crunch. The interior was tender, chewy, and light — the perfect foil for a healthy schmear of cream cheese. 

2nd Place (tie): Big Sky Bread Company (536 Deering Ave.)

This Woodford’s Corner bakery, best known for sandwich breads, delivered an unexpectedly good bagel. From the crunchy crust to the pillowy yet chewy interior, its texture and distinctive sourdough flavor earned scores that nearly won the day. Big Sky’s small daily run of bagels sells out fast, though — by 10 a.m. one recent Saturday, there was only one bagel left, and it was topped only with sunflower seeds (to which I say, why bother?).

The Winner: Forage Market.

1st Place: Forage Market (123 Washington Ave.) 

Golden brown, with blistered spots from the heat of a wood-fired oven, this bagel was beautiful to behold — and just as satisfying to eat. It was crunchy and chewy, with big air pockets attesting to a successful rise. The deep, complex flavor included hints of malt and a touch of salt. The toppings were slightly charred, but not burnt (disclaimer: on occasion, I’ve had Forage bagels that crossed that line).

Honorable Mentions

You don’t have to be in the big city to find great bagels in Maine. Maples, in Yarmouth, and Biddeford’s Rover Bagels have some of the best around.  Whenever The Purple House re-opens in North Yarmouth, Krista Desjarlais’ wood-fired, Montreal-style bagels are absolutely worth a pilgrimage. South Portland’s Scratch Bakery has its own fiercely devoted fans. I find their bagels a bit too soft and bread-like, but I wouldn’t say no if one appeared on my breakfast table.

The bottom line? We’re lucky to live in a time and place where great bagels are readily available in a wide variety of styles. Pick your favorite, stock up on toothpicks for the inevitable poppy seed between the teeth, and don’t forget to save room for pizza.

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