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May 23, 2006

Beyond Einstein: Searching for the best bagel bakeries in the Midwest

Einstein Brothers serves bad bagels. They’re almost acceptable slathered in cream cheese, and the store surprisingly doesn’t skimp on its mediocre lox, but the fact remains that they simply aren’t good bagels. We eat them because they’re on campus, but each time they spark days-long rants about the merits of boiling. In the hope of sparing our friends and loved ones from more of these tirades, we went on a journey to find better bagels.

The first place we stopped was NYC Bagel Deli. This place is extremely proud of its “kettle boiling” of bagels, though it’s unclear how important the “kettle” part of the boiling is or what claim the store has to New York roots. The staff was friendly and seemed proud of their bagels.

The bagels themselves were decent but not incredible. They were medium-sized and about the right texture. What impressed us far more was their selection of smoked fish. They claim their lox is flown in daily, which is evident in both the quality (great) and the price (less than great). A poppy bagel with lox, cream cheese, and orange juice was just under $10, but the portion of lox was more than a tad skimpy. Its 5 p.m. closing time was inconvenient but excusable, as they open at 6 a.m.

Our next stop was the Chicago Bagel Authority, whose specialty, despite the name, is not bagels but “steamed sandwiches.” Unwilling to be distracted by that dubious gimmick, we were happy to find the store does serve normal bagels. The bagels were better than Einstein’s, but they were smallish and a little too dense. The cream cheese was smooth, but the spinach cream cheese spread needed salt. They also don’t have any lox, only lox spread.

On the upside, they have about 50 sandwiches designed to be served on either a bagel or bread, presumably steamed if you like, all for about five or six bucks. More exciting was the fact that they sell the rare cousin of the bagel, the bialy. Baked, but not boiled, bialys are a little chewier than bagels and have no hole in the middle—only an indentation filled with a little dried onion. They’re at their best right out of the oven on the Lower East Side. For a dollar, however, Chicago Bagel Authority’s bialys were great.

Ashkenaz Deli is an unassuming little shop tucked behind a Corner Bakery Cafe in the North Loop, and it’s everything you would want in a cozy little deli. OK, to be honest, the bagels we tried were a little stale. Even so, they were the most bagel-like bagels we tried. The deli serves all the standard varieties of bagel and none of the odd ones, along with a few basic cream cheeses and a nice selection of smoked fish. And (holy grail!) Ashkenaz serves bialys that are even better than Chicago Bagel Authority’s. The staff was cheerful and eager to make sure we got exactly what we wanted. Despite the staleness, this was the deli we would most like to return to—preferably in the morning, when the bagels would be fresher.

The deli half of Ada’s Famous Deli and Restaurant is all hominess behind its swank Loop decor. Their bagels are more typical of good Midwestern bagels than the East Coast variety. Rest assured, Easterners, the differences aren’t huge. Midwestern bagels tend to be slightly softer and sweeter than typical New York fare, and Ada’s are a fine example. The bagel-and-lox plate comes complete with two bagels, lox, cream cheese, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, olives, and orange slices. At $8.50 and enough to split with a friend, it was the best value we found for bagels and lox. Ada’s best feature for restless college students is its closing time—midnight or later every night.

Finally, how can you satisfy that bagel craving if you don’t have the time to wander so far off campus? Well, you have two non-Einstein options, Morry’s and the just-opened bakery at Orly’s. Morry’s bagels aren’t so good, but the lox is medium-quality and inexplicably plentiful for about six bucks.

Despite their quirky menu, Orly’s new bakery produces surprisingly good bagels, as well as making their own cream cheeses. A bagel and cream cheese will run you just over two dollars, six if you want lox.

According to Orly’s owner, he signed an agreement with the famous H&H Bagels (of NYC, of course) to have his bakers apprentice with H&H’s bakers. While not quite NYC quality, Orly’s bagels are certainly up there with the best of the bagel bakeries in Chicago.