Living overseas, you get thinking about being an American – the implications of being someone born under the red, white, and blue. Introducing yourself to others as “American” carries with it a certain perceived identity, one of political brashness and backyard barbecues, freedom and a complete lack of respect for the game of soccer (or “football”). But all of this comes with an assumption that I, as an individual, understood what life was like for all Americans. If someone talked about downing anju alongside soju at a norebang karaoke bar, or munching on some lengua and sipping horchata at their daughter’s quinceañera, I would have never associated such things with America.But this is the American reality for a vast number of people, especially in New York City, where nearly 40% of the population was born outside of the United States. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the city’s eclectic ethnic grocery stores.
Currently, I reside in a Russian neighborhood (that has thankfully remained untouched by the “gentrification” of the nefarious hipster epidemic). While walking around the other day, I entered a shop called “Gorbachev’s Meats.” My assumption was that I’d be able to buy some chicken thighs to fry up into my famous quesadillas. My assumption was wrong. For meat I had three choices: veal neck, a mystery carcass whose description was written in rubbed out sharpie, or one of their seventeen different types of sausage. Canned goods in the store were unidentifiable, containing what could have as easily been stirred peaches as dried snails, and the cheese existed only in goat variety.
This is true city-wide. Head down to Chinatown (or Queens, the true Chinatown) and be bombarded with baby bok choy and tentacled sea creatures sitting in kiddie pools on the side of the road. Swing by one of midtown’s Indian market and marvel at their selection of four thousand types of lentils. Sure, for the white-bred, suburban dwelling denizen it seems a little bizarre, but when you learn that 40% of America’s most iconic city began their life somewhere foreign, you have to start to grapple with the fact that pho and tabouli are as American as apple pie. After all, everybody’s gotta eat.
Which leads us to the task at hand.
Week 6: Absolute Bagels
Perhaps more than any other food, bagels are the quintessential New York food. Although they were invented by the Polish for something to eat during Lent (no joke), they are now most famously an American institution (we spend about a billion dollars on bagels annually). A staple of my breakfast for quite some time, I originally considered making the “New York Sandwich Project” the “New York Bagel Project,” but figured there just wasn’t enough versatility to go around.
The beauty of bagels is that bagels transcend race, ethnicity, and creed. When I’m trying to get down on some righteous jerk chicken, I want a Jamaican at the chef’s helm. If I want some bomb Sichuanese cuisine, I pray there’s someone Chinese in the kitchen. But, bagels are the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter where you’re from; everybody has the potential to make this yeasted wheat dough well. Such things are easier said than done though, and New York is rotten with shoddy, dried-out, overly-salted, tiny, pathetic excuses for bagels. So I did a little research, seeking out the “BEST BAGEL IN NEW YORK CITY.” On my quest for this holy grail of bread product, I was led to an Upper West Side locale named Absolute Bagels, the city’s premiere bagel joint as voted by Yelp.
Some of you may be saying to yourselves, “even if such a bagel exists, who is this man to judge it?” I understand, your doubts have credence; I am neither a native New Yorker nor an accomplished epicurean. But someone has to be brave and venture into the unknown, and it might as well be me.
I entered the eatery with my own, humble palate, and proceeded to explore. Run by a Thai family, it’s the only bagel establishment I’ve seen that also features Thai Iced Tea (which, if you’ve never experienced, is worth the trip alone).The ambiance is underwhelming, dull overhead lights and ice-cold employees, but these things are not hard to look past once you arrive at the cream cheese display. The sheer number of choices puts Absolute Bagels on another level. Among some of the jaw-droppers were: apple cinnamon cream cheese made with fresh apples daily, spicy jalapeno-infused cream cheese, and, for the non-Kosher patron, bacon and cheddar cream cheese (with massive chunks of both).
Using the tools at my disposal, I created a bagel sandwich combination special for this visit: an everything bagel, smothered in jalapeno cream cheese, fresh tomatoes, and piled with smoked salmon. I call it the “Follox.” It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it helped me to objectively benchmark this bagel joint against all others.
The Follox maintained a fantastic balance, spicy and rich and savory and refreshing all at the right times, and never too much of any of the above. Truly, a quality bagel experience and worthy of a trip. But best bagel in New York?
No. It was among the best bagels I have had, which was good enough for me. That, and Absolute features the best cream cheese game in town.
But it got me thinking that, perhaps, there is no objectively best bagel in New York City. Perhaps it is an existential preference, like the way we all view our American identity. Perhaps it’s something about the circular shape of these doughy delights, how our lives move in cycles, as we circle around that massive fiery circle in the sky, trying to understand our lives on our great big blue circle. Or perhaps I just took way too many English courses in college and have way too much time to think about baked goods.