The great Tampa Bay bagel search 

Are our bagels schmear-worthy?

When I lived up north, I used to make arts-related journeys to NYC several times each year, and I’d always include a pilgrimage to H&H Bagels on the Upper West Side. When H&H closed up shop last January after 40 years in business, I was not alone in shedding a tear: H&H bagels were the benchmark, the bagels against which all other bagels were measured.

Those hockey pucks you find in your grocer’s freezer? They bear little resemblance to a real bagel. H&H’s touchstone was shiny and dense, slightly sweet from barley malt, moist, doughy, salty and chewy inside, with a yeasty goodness. You had to wrestle it with your teeth a little — it didn’t give in easily. Eating a great, fresh bagel takes work.

Being denied access to my H&H pusher, I’ve lately opted for Costco’s bargain bagels at $6 a dozen; that’s half of what most Bay area bagel places charge. Costco’s bagels look lovely, but let’s not kid anyone; they’re bread in bagel’s clothing. The crumb is loose, the dough is dry, and the crust lacks chew. But, in a world populated with cinnamon-raisin bagels, does tradition really matter?

I’ve been happily removing my tightly wrapped Costco bagels from the freezer, popping them in the microwave at low power till they’re just thawed, and then toasting them with a one-sided bagel setting before proceeding with butter or cream cheese and accompaniments, depending on my mood. I secretly knew they were inadequate, but I allowed myself to linger in the suspended animation of denial.

In an earlier chapter of my life, I married into a New York Jewish family. Not long after, my now ex-brother-in-law descended from his laid-back San Francisco digs on a periodic trip back East. It was then, eyes wide open, that I got a tutorial on the “proper” way to make bagels with lox.

I was one of the goyim who didn’t know from bagels. I watched patiently as I saw this stoic ER doc morph into a culinary rabbi. First, the bagel must be lightly toasted, then covered with a schmear of regular Philadelphia cream cheese. Follow with a layer of ultra-thin belly lox, then slices of Jarlsberg cheese, ripe red tomato and shaved rings of translucent red onion. If you’re ready to kick it up a notch, add a few small briny capers and a sprinkling of chopped, hard-boiled egg. Lastly, a spritz of bright acidity from a juicy lemon and a few grinds of fresh black pepper. I can honestly say that this assemblage is one of my favorite treats in the whole wide world.

And while I’m pretty sure soldiers died at Valley Forge and Gettysburg for your right to eat a blueberry or chocolate chip bagel, these are not part of my search. Go ahead, munch away — just don’t ask me to approve.

So as we begin 2013, it’s time to step up and see what a committed gastronaut can find on a hundred-mile circuit around the four corners of the Bay. Is it possible that a Lower East Side expat is boiling a bagel that would make NYC proud?

After scouring Urbanspoon, Chowhound, Yelp, Trip Advisor, and CL’s Best of the Bay archives, the consensus came down to six prime candidates. All the recommended bagels have authentic New York street cred; they’re boiled, not steamed like the large commercial producers such as Einstein’s. So even those places listed as “Recommended (but not quite as enthusiastically)” produce a bagel superior to the chain outlets and are worth a visit.

All in all, my carbo-loading expedition convinced me that there are bagel shops at all four corners of the Bay producing decent NY bagels and delicious sandwiches with generous amounts of smoked salmon with cream cheese. Indulge. You may occasionally recall the heyday of the South Beach Diet when it seemed the world would rather shoot heroin than eat a bagel. But never mind. The world, thankfully, has mellowed. Here’s the list of the Bay’s top bagels with some tasting notes.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Clearwater Bagels

Dense, moist crumb, chewy, a touch of sweet malt — these bagels stand out above all the rest. But please note, Clearwater Bagels is not a sandwich shop; it just serves heavenly bagels, plus coffee and drinks to go. 1871 Gulf To Bay Blvd, Clearwater, 727-446-7631.

RECOMMENDED

St. Pete Bagel Co.

This was Creative Loafing’s Readers’ Choice as Best of the Bay. They serve a drier bagel with less chew than Clearwater’s. 7043 4th Street North, St. Petersburg, 727-522-3377; 1987 Indian Rocks Road, Largo, 727-286-6145; stpetebagelco.com.

Tampa Bay Bagel

Moist, with the yeasty taste of white bread; also used at Lucky Dill. 4004 South MacDill Ave., Tampa, 813-839-5838, tampabaybagelcompany.com.

RECOMMENDED

(but not quite as enthusiastically)

Bagel Outlet & Deli Café

Lighter, with larger holes; an open crumb with nice salt. 33148 U.S. Hwy.19 N., Palm Harbor, 727-785-9297

Bagels Plus

A light crumb with dark crust. 2706 East Fletcher Ave., Tampa, 813-971-9335.

Stew’s House of Bagels

Less chew, like bread; but with a nice tartness to the dough. The shop also serves great chocolate cigars and babka. No seats. 13469 S. Belcher Rd., Largo, 727-531-9823.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Costco Wholesale

Think round bread, not bagels; marginal, if toasted. 10921 Causeway Blvd. Brandon, 813-952-0103; 2655 Gulf to Bay Blvd. Clearwater, 727-373-1951.

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