As a food professional, people always ask: "What's your favorite restaurant?" To which, I usually just shake my head and respond: "No." To be a New Yorker and a true lover of food is to know that there's no single answer to this question. In a city with over 20,000 restaurants, I usually have a lot of follow up questions. In this series, however, I highlight some of my favorites in these various categories. Last time I featured my favorite hometown* Italian restaurant, Bettolona. This time, I'm talking about the ultimate New York City staple: bagels.
Being a Native New Yorker means my blood runs bagels. That's right, forget blue! My blood is salty, doughy, and full of gluten! And I didn't grow up just anywhere in this city but on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. That may not mean much for a non-NYer or even a new NYer, but for my youth, it meant a heavy Jewish influence regardless of your own family heritage. My sister and I would lovingly refer to our neighborhood as Hebrew Heights. And if you know anything about the origins of our beloved bread discs, you'll know that they're strongly tied to Eastern European Jewish Culture.
If our family was hosting a party, we'd go to (the now closed) H&H bagels to pick up a few bakers dozens of our favorite flavors, then head to Zabar's, Fairway, and/or Citarella for our smoked fish and cream cheese needs. When I was a pre-teen with a lunch break at my very liberal middle school, I'd go with my friends to one of the local delis and get a "hot buttered bagel." I haven't had one in forever, but I can tell you that the best ones were so full of butter that every bite was saturated, and even the hard bagel shell was glistening in salty, fatty, goodness.
In high school, our local hangout was simply known as "the bagel shop." It's long gone now, and I could not tell you what the proper name was, but it was the only one around, so we didn't need further clarification. One day, when I write my autobiography about growing up here, I'll share the many stories about the shop which include marijuana in the walk-in, gin and kool-aid for breakfast, and contraband storage. But for now, I'll just say it was pivotal in my evolving bagel love. It was where my HSBFF (high school best friend forever), Christina, introduced me to the magic of the Everything Bagel with Cream Cheese and Tomato that is now my go-to bagel order.
Fast forward about 20 years, and I've been a Harlem resident for over half that time. And while there are MANY wonderful things in Harlem--especially as it relates to food, good bagels have been hard to come by. Some of the local delis used to carry H&H bagels, until all of their locations closed down a few years ago, which was nice. Where I live is often incorrectly refered to as Morningside Heights, so most top bagel lists will direct you to what I refer to as “the out-of-towners favorite shop,” Absolute Bagels. Technically it’s on the Upper West Side, as it falls just below 110th street, so even if I thought it was a worthy shop, it’s still over 15 blocks from me. The closest bagel place to me with decent bread doughnuts, until last year, was Nussbaum & Wu. They’ve also got salads and some other things that I don’t really care about there, but they have the kind of bagel that you’ll find in most good NYC shops—a little bigger than they need to be, and slightly softer than traditional ones, but with enough flavor to work with whatever you’re smothering on them.
But in March of 2017, at 235 W 116th Street, the clouds parted and the bagel Gods smiled upon us. Andrew Martinex and Ashley Dinkos, the husband and wife team crazy enough to try selling their homemade bagels at a local farmer’s market, opened up their brick and mortar shop on this main thoroughfare that’s lined with soul food, African restaurants, and fish frys. Bo's Bagels had arrived!
Andrew's a fellow native city kid, having grown up in Queens—my second favorite borough (not sorry, Brooklyn). His memories of bagels are probably as treasured for him as they were for me. Saturdays were bagel days in his childhood home. They were the days his mom would provide the treasures from her favorite bagel purveyor. So, after living in the bagel dead zone of Harlem for many years, with his carb-free wife, he decided to make his own circular mark. Andrew studied the mighty traditions of a true New York bagel, with enthusiasm and great dedication. His homegrown experiments were often met with skepticism, especially from his transplanted partner who hadn’t the same connection to these rounds as he had. It wasn’t until Andrew purchased his first kettle boiler that Ashley took him seriously. He even managed to get her to break her gluten-free streak with his irresistible creations. Andrew’s mother, forever the bagel-provider, was their first customer when she suggested that she purchase some for her colleagues. This sparked the interest in the couple to turn this outfit into an actual operation.
After months of success at the farmer’s market, they began to take this mission seriously and the quest for a proper bagel space was underway. After bagel-proofing their new digs, the couple opened up shop on and soon the word began to spread. At long last, Harlemites can finally get GOOD BAGELS! Fresh out of the oven, flavorful, cream cheese-covered bagels!
My subscription to Eater NY introduced these new kids in the 'hood to me, and I knew I had to try them for myself. That summer, my childhood friend, Sydney, who now also lives in Harlem, met me nearby and we tested these dough rings. I went for my standard order but noticed that they also had za’atar bagels, so I HAD to try one and I took it to go for later. Now, I only became familiar with za’atar a few years ago, but it’s a Middle Eastern spice blend, that’s commonly found in Israeli food.
We were both pleased with the size of the bagels—smaller than the standard jumbo bagels commonly found across the boroughs, but not so small that you’ll think you’re in Canada. The ratio of bagel to filling was just right and the texture was on point. A hard, glossy exterior with a softer chewy interior.
The traditional ingredients for and steps to making a bagel are simple, but it’s the details that will drastically change the outcome. Your dough consists of a high-gluten flour, salt, yeast, and water, and the steps are proof, boil and bake. But a good New York bagel needs a long proof—like overnight, and then MUST be boiled in barley malt—similar to a molasses. This is what gives that beautiful caramelized color and hard shell. Once the bagels are out of their bath, they can be topped with whatever blend of edible accessories you'd like, and then they’re placed on their bagel boards for a final bake in the oven.
Aside from the size and texture of the bagels, the most impressive part of the whole experience was the flavor. All too often, today’s bagel-makers rely upon their toppings and neglect seasoning the dough itself. This is not the case at Bo’s. These bagels have enough flavor that if you found yourself trapped on a desert island with spoiled cream cheese, you’d still enjoy your bagels—but I don’t recommend you get yourself trapped on a desert island, to begin with.
They make their own cream cheese as well, which means that it’s nice and fresh and not too stiff, which can be a problem when you don’t toast your bagels. Oh, you toast your bagels? Then I suggest you stick with a crappy bagel shop because a good one doesn’t need your toasting. There are shops in the city that won’t even do it for you or will charge extra for it as it changes the chemistry of the bread itself. Ideally, you’re consuming your bagel within a couple of hours from its final baking process.
Bo’s offers the traditional flavor varieties that you’ll find in most shops, as well as some of their specialty flavors, like the Za’atar, their 3CBO—which is topped with 3 cheeses, Black Russian, and Pumpernickel Cranberry. They also offer mini bagels, bialys, and a Bagel Dog—which, yes, is a long stick-looking bagel with a hot dog inside of it! In addition to their homemade spreads, they offer a variety of smoked fish and salads as well as specialty sandwiches that range from the usual egg concoction to things a little wilder (for a bagel'wich, anyway), like pulled pork and coleslaw to their own version of a chopped cheese. Perhaps that’s why I love this shop so much. Andrew and Ashley pay tribute to tradition by making the bagels in the old world style, but then they add their own modern New York Foodie spin on them.
The shop itself is large enough to feel pretty accommodating on most days—with exception to the early weekend rush. And I would advise you to get to Bo’s before noon if you want one of their most popular sellers (like my own favorite za’atar). The staff there is always super friendly and helpful to me, and are happy to help with bagel recommendations if you tell them what you’re into. If you do choose to toast your bagel, they will do it for you without even a hint of judgment being passed.
If you happen to book a Harlem tour with me, then you’re in for a Bo’s treat! And if you head there on your own, then you should tell them the Fun Foodie sent you although I’m sure they won’t have any idea of what you mean!
If you’re still hungry for some deeper bagel knowledge, you can dig into Culture Clock’s latest blog post of my interview with Laura Murphy about the history of our beloved twice cooked dough. And if you’d prefer to eat your bagels in lower Manhattan then I suggest you check out this interview with the owner of Tompkins Square Bagels, and then go there and get your eat on!
Stay tuned for more of my favorites and some exciting news about the directions of my tours as I become more and more experienced! 😉
*hometown for a New York gal means neighborhood. Many of us find it hard to pry ourselves from our neighborhoods if we don't have to.