Boichik Bagels Owner Responds to the New York Times Declaring Her Bagels the Best in Country
Last week, the New York Times sent shockwaves through the country when food critic Tejal Rao declared that America’s best bagels are no longer in New York, but instead, right here in Berkeley, California, at Boichik Bagels on College Avenue.
As a Jew, bagels have an almost sacred status in my culture. Every simcha (or Jewish life-cycle event) is accompanied by the circles of dough, beginning with a bris (or alternatively, a baby naming ceremony) and ending with shiva (the ritual mourning after a Jewish person dies). On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, it’s standard practice to break a 24-plus hour fast with bagels and shmear.
So, I take my bagels seriously. To be honest, as an East Coast transplant, California’s bagels were always a source of embarrassment. Visitors would come to California and marvel at the ubiquity of our farm-to-table restaurant food and the year-round quality of our produce. But then, there’d always be that caveat:
“Yes, but you can’t get a good bagel out here, can you?”
Until recently, they were right.
America’s Best Bagel
Boichik Bagels in Berkeley doles out bagels every bit as good as those on the East Coast, and according to the Times, even better. With due respect to the Times, I’ve been covering Boichik since well before the paper made its declaration, both in The Bold Italic and as a photographer. I called their bagels the best in the Bay back in January and have been telling everyone that I know about them ever since.
I admit that when I first heard about Boichik through a friend, I was highly skeptical. When I used to travel to New York City for work, I’d often fly back with a dedicated suitcase filled with up to two dozen bagels from Absolute Bagels on the Upper West Side.
I know good bagels when I see them. And most of what I found out here didn’t come close to New York standards. Boichik’s bagels do. And a big part of that comes from the seriousness with which Boichik’s founder Emily Winston takes her venture and the bagel-making process.
According to Boichik’s website, Winston grew up outside New Jersey, and her father would often bring back bagels, whitefish, and chive cream cheese from Zabar’s on the Upper West Side and H&H bagels, the Manhattan gold standard.
When H&H closed, Winston said that she “took this news like the death of a loved one I just hadn’t been in contact with in a long time, and grieved, and said I didn’t want to let those bagels cease to exist.” There began a “five year quest, through trial and error, to create a bagel I longed to eat.”
Winston started Boichik as a cottage food business out of her home but quickly outgrew her limited space. Her main motivation in growing the business was personal.
“I had a very specific goal in mind,” she told me. “I didn’t have a business plan for many years. It was an intellectual pursuit of finding that lost bagel for myself.” In an interview with the J, Winston called herself “a picky Jew who just wants an H&H bagel.”
Winston’s Jewish background informs much of Boichik’s menu. Even the store’s name is a Yiddish term of endearment for a young man. (Winston says on the store’s website that the name came from her grandmother, who Winston believes “would tell you that my bagels are the best!”)
The store also sells such items as a Balabusta iced coffee—a super strong coffee drink which gets its name from the Yiddish term for a powerful woman—and the Big Macher party platter, inspired by a term for a big shot or a big spender (the platter costs $245).
Winston told me that she was raised as a Reform Jew, but has never been very religious. “The culture was way more significant than the actual religion in my family,” she said. Food — bagels specifically — were central to that culture.
“Food was huge,” Winston told me. “Zabar’s and H&H were considered holy places, way more holy than our temple. When my father would take us there, it was a very significant, special occasion.”
Her memories of those bagels — eaten with her mother, sisters, and grandmother while listening to a bootlegged Jackie Mason cassette — provided the ideal inspiration for the bagels she creates at Boichik today.
Behind the Bagel
Why are Boichik’s bagels so good? A big part of it probably comes down to the steps Winston takes in making them — or more specifically, the steps she doesn’t take. When the New York Times last considered West Coast bagels in 2015, their conclusion was that West Coasters couldn’t make a good one because they tried too hard to innovate.
Rather than putting in years of practice to hone and perfect old-world techniques — and to obsess over tiny details like the alkalinity of their water — they tried to create new twists on the traditional bagel, adding in sourdough starter, cooking up gluten-free varieties, and the like.
With bagels, Mitchell Davis of the Beard Foundation told the Times in 2015, “the effect of artisanship does not always produce a better result.” A great bagel is fundamentally traditional, steeped in long-developed cultural trends and a peoples’ collective memory.
It’s not something that benefits from “updating” or from the artisanship and personalization which West Coast chefs often bring to their trade. With a goal of creating a bagel born of her own childhood memories and Jewish upbringing instead of an ego-driven quest for innovation, Winston may have been the perfect person to create a real East Coast bagel out West.
Winston largely agrees with this, although her success still seems to baffle her a bit. She told me that she sometimes asks, “Why me?” and wonders why she should be the West Coaster to “break the bagel code” when so many chefs out here are doing so many “lovely and creative things.” Her best guess is that it’s because her background isn’t in food but in engineering.
“I wasn’t trying to be an innovative chef, and I wasn’t trying to make something new. I don’t have a horse in that race,” Winston said. Instead, she was “trying to make something that already existed,” combining her engineering skills and her powerful memories of childhood bagel experiences in order to craft something perfect.
She has succeeded. Boichik’s bagels are malty, dense, and chewy — the polar opposite of the dry, crumbly bagels which are so common on this coast. They’re hefty and intensely salty, with just a background hint of onion — which may actually be present, or may just be evoked from decades spent eating bagels like Boichik’s with lox, capers, onion, and tomato.
Winston’s bagels come in traditional flavors like Everything, Pumpernickel, Salt, Onion, and Egg, and there’s just a tiny hint of innovation in combining some of those flavors to create new bagels like the Eggything (an egg bagel with Everything seasoning).
Bagels are rarely eaten alone, and Boichik also delivers when it comes to bagel accoutrements. Their chive cream cheese is phenomenal, as are their lox (smoked salmon), and other Ashkenazi Jewish staple foods like egg salad. Ordering at Boichik feels like going to a traditional Jewish deli, too.
There’s often a line around the block on weekend mornings, and their ordering process consists of a bubbe-aged woman seated behind a plexiglass screen with a space heater and a tablet, to whom you shout your order from a six-foot distance.
To skip the line, you can also order ahead of time online. Boichik even delivers bagels once per week to each region of the Bay Area. They’re best fresh, but almost as good frozen and reheated (I eat mine throughout the week).
If you want a Boichik bagel right now, though, you might have to wait. Winston told me that since the Times article came out, demand has been “completely bonkers.” Her staff has been putting in overtime every day, and orders are sold out three weeks in advance.
For those who don’t mind waiting at least 30 minutes, the walk-up option is still available, and Boichik’s website says that “we have tons of bagels for walk-ups.” Still, Winston says that the current setup is “completely unsustainable” and that “bagels aren’t something you should have to book a month in advance.” Winston says she feels like she did when she first started her cottage food business and had to rapidly scale, and that she is exploring how to add capacity without “ruining the bagel.”
Not everyone is thrilled about Winston’s success. Because they’re so intimately tied to culture and tradition, bagels can be a contentious topic. Winston said that after reading the comment section on the New York Times article, she was concerned that some people might “come after me with pitchforks and torches.”
Winston feels that most of the time, people see the East versus West bagel brawl as a “fun fight,” but that some people have taken things too far. As one example, Winston says that an angry New Yorker called her restaurant to scream at her manager and called her a bitch.
Overall, though, Winston isn’t too concerned about the haters. She sees the Times article as akin to a “bagel Judgement of Paris,” referencing a famous 1976 blind tasting in which several Napa Valley wines bested their French competition, as judged by some of the top sommeliers in France. At the time, Winston says, “The French responded that it can’t be true.” But the tasting put the Napa Valley on the map as a serious winemaking region, and today Napa’s wines are considered just as good as wines from France.
Winston also gets where the doubters are coming from. When people tell her they’re skeptical about her bagels, she responds with, “Good. You should be.” If she had picked up the Times five years ago and read that a West Coast engineer had created the perfect bagels, she says she wouldn’t have believed it either. But Winston trusts that once the skeptics try her bagels, they’ll see what all the fuss is about.
In the end, what Winston has achieved with Boichik is a different form of innovation — the distillation, through intensive effort and experimentation, of the perfect mix of ideas, memories, and over 5,000 years of heritage and food ways into an ideal bagel form. Boichik’s bagels are at once highly nostalgic, and also immediately attainable — the kind of thing which brings you back to your upbringing, but that you’d also be happy to eat every morning.
It probably took some combination of East Coast culture and traditionalism and the West Coast innovative spirit (as well as the very Bay Area chutzpah to believe that recreating a bagel as beloved as H&H’s was even possible) to achieve that. The perfect bagel, it turns out, requires a blend of nostalgia and innovation, past and present, conservatism and experimentation, loss, longing, memory, and family.
Ultimately, Winston’s favorite thing about Boichik is the opportunity to be included in other peoples’ new bagel traditions. Winston told me that she recently provided bagels for several baby-namings, and that “it’s extra wonderful to be included in significant life events. It makes me so happy.” For Winston, fostering connections to family, tradition, and celebration isn’t just a part of her business. It’s the very essence of “what bagels are supposed to be about.”