Monday, January 7, 2013

Can You Find a Good Bagel in DC?

Ask almost anyone where the best bagels are, and you'll likely hear "New York." Long adored, New York bagels are a culinary Holy Grail, right up there with the Philly Cheesesteak and LA's French Dip. But what happens if you live in the nation's capital? Surely, there's some place to find a suitable bagel, right? We tried some of DC's best and brightest bagel shops in search of something close to the "Big Apple."

Bagels Etc.: Bagels Etc. could be the area's most liked sandwich shop. Great prices, even better service and outstanding bagels under a buck ($.91 each) are three reasons why this P Street favorite keeps getting rave reviews on Urbanspoon, Yelp and now DC Outlook. I took home a honey wheat bagel that stayed perfect until just before bedtime. Toasted with jam, it's the perfect consistency (right on par with Bruegger's.) If you like yours fancier, Bagels Etc. sells Bagel burgers, pizzas and a variety of breakfast sandwiches (you can get a bagel with egg and your choice of coffee or tea for just $2.29!)

Grade: B+

Honey wheat bagel at Bagels Etc.

Bruegger's: Penn Quarter and bagels hardly seem like a match made in Heaven; but you'd be hard pressed to find a bagel shop that offers better service or tastier bagels. The 509 9th Street, NW location pays utmost respect and attention to its customers, while offering affordable (and well-prepared) bagels. I ordered a Cinnamon Apple toasted bagel with strawberry jam for a mere $1.39 + tax. My bagel was nicely toasted with visible pieces of cranberry: Unfortunately, I couldn't see or taste the apple. The strawberry jam was top notch (you can also choose grape) and played well against its sufficiently chewy transport.

What separates Bruegger's from its competition is the 9th Street branch's unequaled customer service. Each and every time I come in here, I'm showered with kindness. It's one of the few places out there where the staff says hello and good-bye, even when they're busy. The shop's interior is very clean with soft rock music played at a proper decibel.

Grade: B+

Cinnamon Apple bagel at Bruegger's

Firehook Bakery
: What better way to test a bagel than a breakfast sandwich? Firehook's sandwiches are a bit pricey ($4.95 including tax) but hot and tasty. Customer service is always top notch (I frequent the Cleveland Park outlet at 3411 Connecticut Avenue, NW) and the staff moves quickly (this place gets crowded.) I ordered a plain bagel with bacon and egg, and was happy with the result. The bagel wasn't as thick as some, but plenty chewy. It partnered well with crispy (flavorful) bacon and a good amount of (so-so quality) egg. It may not be worth five bucks, but it helped get my morning headed in the right direction.

Grade: B-

Plain bagel with bacon & egg at Firehook Bakery

Pumpernickel's Bagelry & Delicatessen
: You wont find many places more casual than Pumpernickel's at 5504 Connecticut Avenue, NW. It's been around forever, and actually has a sign warning customers in line not to talk or text on their cell phones (or risk getting passed over.) That said, they're known for having some of the best bagels in town; so I ordered a Sun Dried Tomato bagel with bacon and egg for a late (1:30!) breakfast. If you don't like sun dried tomatoes, Pumpernickel's has over 15 different bagels to choose from daily.

My breakfast sandwich set me back four bucks + tax; but for DC's most unique bagel s'wich, I have to say it's worth it. Pumpernickel's uses fried egg and good quality bacon to dress a strong flavored bagel. I'm used to scrambled egg at other places, but none of them cook their bagels in a real oven (microwaved eggs suck.) Looking back, a sun-dried tomato bagel doesn't make the perfect compliment to bacon & egg... but that was my choice. The bagel itself wasn't particularly chewy; but I loved that my sandwich still had visible steam coming out of it a minute or two after opening the foil.

Note: Please excuse the poor quality of the photo below: Pumpernickel's is dark inside to begin with; and an aluminum foil backdrop certainly doesn't help.

Grade: C for the bagel, B- for the sandwich

Sun Dried Tomato bagel with bacon & egg

Bethesda Bagels
: What some say is true: Bethesda Bagels at 1718 Connecticut Ave., NW is tops at delivering poor service. I stopped by at 1:00 on a Sunday afternoon, with five customers lined up in front of me. Five minutes later, there were three (and now six behind me.) No wonder this place always has a line... They're slow.

When I came back at 3:30, there were just two customers in front of me... A pair of creepy guys who took almost five minutes to choose half a dozen bagels: They couldn't stop giggling over the sun-dried tomato variety... Must be an inside joke. Several employees could be seen cleaning up, while one clerk was left to handle all the customers. Finally, someone else offered to help; but after I placed an order for a plain bagel with egg and sausage, he told me the grill was done for the day. Time: 3:35 (25 minutes before close.) To his credit, he reluctantly asked if I wanted the egg and sausage microwaved instead. Gross. I politely declined and left. I'd rather eat nothing than a microwaved egg... and the owners of this (or any) establishment should be ashamed to do it.

I get the feeling that shame never crosses anyone's mind at this location. I understand why you'd want to clean up early (so you can get home quicker) but it should never come at the expense of your customer. By the way, there were four people behind me when I left... I wonder if any of them wanted something grilled or microwaved?

Since I couldn't get anything to eat, I took a photo of the exterior. I'll be sure to remember it, every time I pass by the place that wouldn't feed me. The home franchise in Bethesda gets rave reviews... Perhaps they should send one of their managers down to Dupont Circle.

Grade: F

Bethesda Bagels at Dupont Circle

So's Your Mom: This Adams Morgan favorite may not look like much from the outside; but once you step inside, you'll be amazed at the plethora of choices. Stocked shelves and a full-service deli surround a narrow runway for customers that gets crowded in a hurry. The staff here is attentive, but not overly friendly (probably because they're so busy.) Folks sing their praises about their breakfast sandwiches, and I have to agree with them. I grabbed a plain bagel (courtesy of Whatsa Bagels) with sausage & egg for $3.50 + tax. It's cash only, and you don't pay until your food is ready (which was about five minutes for me.) My sandwich was out of this world! For starters, the bagels are BIG and just chewy enough. The egg is nothing special, but the sausage was still sizzling inside the foil minutes later. I can't think of a better quick breakfast option on the way to work. It's guaranteed to keep you satisfied til lunch.

Grade: B+

Bagel with sausage & egg at So's Your Mom

Loeb's NY Deli: Loeb's has moved around quite a bit since opening over 50 years ago; but its loyal patrons seem to follow them anywhere. You can find it now at 1712 I Street, NW, just blocks from the White House. The space is big and relatively spotless. The menu is extensive, but I was hear for bagels only. I ordered a plain bagel with sausage & egg ($3.99) but was charged $4.94 (no receipt... I felt robbed before I'd had one bite. Gee, thanks.) Five bucks for a bagel sandwich with two ingredients? Maybe this is a New York deli after all.

I was told to pick another bagel before the cook announced, 'You're lucky.' She found the last plain bagel (big deal.) At least everything was prepared on a grill, and it shows up in the taste. The bagel's small, but perfectly toasted. Loeb's fries their eggs instead of scrambling, and it makes a difference. Sausage was OK... not great, not bad. Overall: Tasty, but not worth five bucks (yet alone an unexplained price difference in the house's favor.)

Grade: C

Loeb's Bagel with sausage & egg

Dutch Touch: Conveniently located across the street from the King Street Metro on the Blue and Yellow lines, Dutch Touch hasn't changed much (in appearance) since I used to stop by on the way to work almost 20 years ago. Unfortunately, it's taken a change for the worse in terms of service (can you say surly?) and food quality/cost ($4.09 for a bagel s'wich?) My plain bagel was charred, flat and far from chewy (although nicely toasted.) They actually cut up a single slice of bacon and spread it atop a flavorless (where's the salt?) fried egg. One slice of bacon? Talk about cheap. Wish I could, since I'm out four bucks and a dime. 1800 Diagonal Road, Alexandria, VA

Grade: D-

Dupont Coffee & Carryout: I'm a big fan of this unassuming coffee shop at 1234 19th Street, NW, and couldn't wait to try one of their many breakfast sandwich combinations. I settled on a plain bagel with sausage & egg for $4.50 with tax (a little pricey, but I didn't mind once I heard the egg getting whisked as opposed to poured.) Service is always with a smile, and my sandwich didn't disappoint either. Perfectly toasted, my bagel was light and airy. The egg was fried and worked well with the juiciest sausage patty I've had in ages. I have no idea how they pack so much flavor into one patty, but it takes the sandwich to the next level.

Grade: B

Au Bon Pain: With 20 locations in DC alone, Au Bon Pain literally has a corner on the bakery/café market. Most sell a wide selection of cookies, pastries and bagels in addition to fresh sandwiches (hot and cold.) At $1.19 each, they're quite a bargain: You can even order your favorite with egg, bacon, ham or sausage. I popped into the 1801 L Street café and purchased a cinnamon & raisin to take home, toast and enjoy. The raisins made an interesting addition, but I was really hoping to taste more of the cinnamon (it's barely there.) Mine was also a little on the flat side of things... more english muffin than bagel. Sounded interesting, but tasted so-so.

Grade: C

Au Bon Pain's Cinnamon Raisin Bagel

Einstein Bros. Bagels: A bagel that tastes as advertised? Imagine that. Einstein Bros. makes a mean bagel, and their blueberry variety is one of their best. Customer service at their Union Station location is fast and courteous. My bagel had good flavor and consistency, not to mention plenty of blueberries... all for $1.10 + tax. Nice.

Grade: B

Einstein Bros. Bagels' Blueberry Bagel