Portland's bagel universe imploded six years ago when beloved local chain Kettleman was sold to Einstein Bros. In the aftermath, we did a taste-off, crowning tiny upstart Spielman as the new king, with Kenny & Zuke's Delicatessen close behind. A year later, we repeated the survey, but with five rabbis doing the judging. They picked then-new Bowery Bagels, with Spielman close behind.
But the disruption of the Kettleman closure continues. Spielman Bagels used positive press from us and others to rapidly expand to three locations, including two former Kettlemans. Nine new boiled-bagel shops have opened since.
We wanted to survey the lay of the land now. So we conducted a blind tasting of the 14 bagel shops that boil or steam their bagels. (Baked bagels are unsweetened doughnuts.)
All bagels were purchased or delivered during the same two-hour window on a Tuesday morning, to ensure their freshness. At each stop we ordered "two plain bagels and two of your most popular flavor," which was almost always the everything bagel.
We started by rating the plain, untoasted bagels on numbered plates. Plain cream cheese was available but rarely used by our six tasters. After we'd gone through the plain, untoasted bagels we broke out the other flavors and toasted the ones we were most curious about to further inform our ratings.
What did we discover? Bagels are tough, and the crown weighs heavy. The two runaway winners were tiny upstarts you've probably never heard of, working way harder than everybody else and taking no shortcuts. Spielman, once the pride of Portland, really slid.
Here are all of Portland's boiled bagels, ranked on a 100-point scale.
1. Bundy's Bagels (92 points)
1421 SE 33rd Ave., 503-880-8550, bundysbagels.com.
Joel Bundy first started making bagels because he was bored.
He typed into Google: "what should you do when you're bored." Google suggested he try cooking or baking. He typed: "what should i cook or bake," and bagels came up.
He says his first 25 batches were inedible. But Bundy doesn't like failing. For years, Bundy he kept making bagels, but didn't tell anyone.
"I felt weird about it," he says. "Nobody just starts making bagels. That's not a thing you do."
But nine years after his first inedible batch, three years after quitting his job as a garbage collector to open the cart, and two years after he found himself flat broke and deep in debt, unable to buy basic bagel supplies, Bundy is quietly making the city's finest bagels in a tiny food-cart pod in an alley off Hawthorne.
"I think about quitting every single day," he says. "Do I want to keep doing 100-hour weeks?"
The answer is always yes.
"There's something therapeutic for me when I made bagels. I haven't really lost that passion for it," he says
They're made in the cart, by hand, with careful attention to every step of the process, and high-quality ingredients like Bob's Red Mill flour. Between closing one day and opening the next, he works up to eight hours getting them right.
"I've never been an artsy person, but I see that feeling of art when it comes to making bagels," he says. "I've closed down because the bagels didn't turn out to what I would personally eat. I'm not going to be open and selling it if it's not up to the standard."
Right now, his food cart is for sale—Bundy plans to use the proceeds to finance a brick-and-mortar location. Someone please give him money.
Comments: "Crackles on the exterior with flavor inside, best!" "Great crust and flavor, this is my ideal bagel: crispness, lightness, salt." "Perfect balance of malty, tangy."
2. Bernstein's Bagels (90)
Bernstein's Bagels doesn't even have a website.
If you don't count its Facebook page, which has only about 300 likes, it's almost unknown, save for a small profile in Oregon Jewish Life. The only regular places you can snag its bagels are at Townshend's Teahouses and at the coffee shop in the Portland Art Museum.
Yet Noah Bernstein, a musician who started making bagels in his kitchen just two years ago, is making some of the best bagels in the city.
This past August, he and his business partner, Peter Hurteau, went from hobby bagel makers to full-blown small-business owners in a week. When his friends opened the Fillmore Cafe on Northeast Glisan Street, he wanted to provide bagels for the grand opening. To do so, he had to get business insurance, a bank account and a brand to officially establish the business.
"I turned around and was like, 'Oh, I guess I started a bagel company,'" says Bernstein, who teaches music and plays in bands when he's not boiling bagels. A typical day ends by playing a gig until midnight or later, and begins by waking up at 5:30 am to make bagels.
With that schedule, you'd think bagels would be more of a side hustle. But Bernstein says he doesn't cut corners when it comes to bagels.
"We don't really compromise with anything," he says. "We're really trying to follow the traditional way of making N.Y.-style bagels to a T. We're small-batch operation, which allows us the extra level of quality control, which we hope to maintain."
Bernstein uses organic barley malt syrup instead of malt powder, a popular substitute. He also hand rolls all the bagels and lets them rise in the fridge for two days to give them a deep flavor not unlike a sourdough pretzel. He also boils with lye, which is a traditional way of boiling bagels and pretzels. It's super-dangerous—highly basic and corrosive—he says, "but the quality of bagel when it's done is so much better."
Bernstein and Hurteau are planning to open a store in St. Johns by early April.
Comments: "Smells right, looks right, chewy exterior, great shape." "Great flavor, crust, soft middle, chewy." "Crisp outside, soft inside, beautiful structure. I like."
3. Kenny & Zuke's Bagelworks (71)
2376 NW Thurman St., 503-954-1737, kennyandzukes.com/bagelworks.
Kenny & Zuke's have been around the block. They were among the best six years ago, and we're glad to see they've managed to keep the magic surrounding their hole. Plus, they're now the best place to get a bagel in Northwest Portland. (Full disclosure: The recipe was created by WW contributor Michael C. Zusman.)
Comments: "Super-malty, tastes like barleywine?" "Nice chew, sweet finish." "Gentle, with a little of texture, nice exterior, could be a little more done."
4. Bowery Bagels (57)
310 NW Broadway, 503-227-6674, bowerybagels.com.
Four years ago, we had a panel of rabbis rank all the bagels in Portland, and they deemed Bowery the winner. It still ranks high, but the score drop-off after Kenny & Zuke's is precipitous, with many tasters finding its bagels a bit too cooked.
Comments: "Bland, too chewy." "Very cereal, laboriously chewy." "Bagel rock." "Ultra-dark and chewy, maybe needs more salt."
5. Kornblatt's Deli (56)
628 NW 23rd Ave., 503-242-0055, kornblattsdelipdx.com.
Kornblatt's Deli on Northwest 23rd isn't really a bagel spot, but bagels are part of what you expect from a Jewish deli. Plus, there's not another spot where you can get such a huge selection of smoked fish.
Comments: "Top is undercooked, dry bread, nice chew, but it's whole-wheaty."
6. Bridgetown Bagel Company (55)
5221 NE Sandy Blvd, 503-268-2522, bridgetownbagel.com.
Bridgetown follows the classic Portland food-cart narrative: opened three years ago as a cart before opening a brick-and-mortar, making it one more stop on a tour of Sandy's Green Mile, especially when you're high.
Comments: "Nicely tangy, but too dense." "Too bready, but decent exterior." "Wet, bland." "Malty, tangy."
7. Spielman Bagels (52)
2314 NW Lovejoy St., 503-208-3083; 2200 NE Broadway, 503-477-9045; 2111 SE Division St., 503-946-8297; spielmanbagels.com.
This was disappointing. Besides being one of the city's most beloved chains that doesn't feel like a chain, the sunny Division Street location is so pleasant—bagels with a patio. Also, it's objectively convenient because it's close to my house. Since winning our tasting five years ago, it's got two new locations and offers fancier things, like the bacon, arugula jam sandwich. But we found the bagels in our tasting a bit dense and bready.
Comments: "Dense, moist, but too bready, very sweet." "Bread. Bad!" "Dense, a little malty."
8. Bakehouse Water Bagels (52)
6141 SW Macadam Ave.,971-302-7968, bwbagels.letseat.at.
Nearly every bagel shop in town calls itself "New York-style," but Bakehouse actually imports its bagel base from the East Coast and serves it here. Maybe it's the cabin pressure, but the travel seems to have taken all the taste away.
Comments: "Super-chewy, lots of grain flavor." "Super-bland." "This is the end of when I have opinions."
9. Eisenhower Bagel House (49)
4350 N Interstate Ave., 503-288-5376, eisenhowerbagelhouse.com.
The Overlook neighborhood loves Eisenhower. Last year, the bagel shop, which began inside Pinky's Pizza in 2013, created a Kickstarter-like campaign for a new space, and it raised almost $19,000. Arts and culture editor Martin Cizmar had one of his favorite bagels in Portland out of the shop, an excellent pepper-infused and character-rich round. But we found the plain bagels need more character.
Comments: "Too bready." "Bland, exterior like a tough, 25-year-old pot sticker." "Fairly inoffensive, but not great."
10. Henry Higgins Boiled Bagels (41)
6420 SE Foster Road, 971-271-8613, hhboiledbagels.com.
Despite this shop's strong pedigree—owner Leah Orndoff came from years at Kettleman, and head baker Dave Barile learned his craft on Long Island—most tasters found its bagels alkaline and a little bland.
Comments: "Love the look, like the bit of sourness." "Way too alkaline." "White bread, tastes like grocery store." "This is the flavor of kind of OKness." "Bland, no crust."
11. Blackheart Bagels (33)
Blackheart is the one-woman operation of Bethany Venooker, who moved to Portland five years ago. After she got here, she missed boiled bagels so much she started making her own. Our tasters thought her bagels were beautiful, but dry.
Comments: "Beautiful exterior but no character inside." "Great chew." "This might be impossible to eat—so big and dense it sucks the saliva out of your mouth."
12. Finicky's Bagel Cafe (20)
5127 SW Macadam Ave., 503-827-4158.
This John's Landing shop also has salad and bubble tea.
Comments: "Terrible, flat, bland bread." "Tasteless dinner roll." "This is a dry dinner roll, not a bagel."
13. New Cascadia Traditional (11)
1700 SE 6th Ave, 503-546-4901, newcascadiatraditional.com.
Having a dedicated gluten-free bakery is cool, but maybe gluten-free bagels shouldn't exist.
Comments: "Weird crumb cake." "Blargh!"
14. Broadway Bagels (6)
12731 NE Whitaker Way, 503-241-9232, broadwaybagels.org.
A gluten-free bakery beat out Broadway Bagels. Yikes. Guys, we need to talk.
Comments: "Terrible! Too soft, like bread." "They look par-frozen." "What the hell is this?" "Sugar-sweet."