I grew up in Miami, but it never felt like home. Now I’m in Brooklyn. It’s a difficult place to live — sometimes it neglects you — but, for me, it feel likes home. The things I love most about it read like a laundry list of what Miami lacks: public transportation, music, density, cheap food, bike lanes. And yet there’s one thing I miss about Miami, one arena where Miami reigns supreme on the world stage.
Yea, I said it. I live in New York, and I miss Miami bagels from the bottom of my soul.
It’s not through any familiarity or sentimentality that I prefer Miami bagels. I’ve already explained my disappointment with the city in general, but I should add that I take bagels exceedingly seriously. It’s almost a hobby. Even in New York, many famous bagelries do not meet my standards.
The perfect bagel is somewhat thin, economizing, not inflated. There should be a hole in the center — when they’re too fat, the middle can resemble tight lips. It’s crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside. Otherwise, you’re not eating a bagel, but a roll with a stab wound.
A good bagel is a little sweet, almost imperceptibly so (though you notice when it’s missing). And then there’s that something extra — call it lusciousness. I can tell just by looking whether a bagel has it or not, but you’ll know by the first bite. It should feel like an indulgence.
Don’t get me wrong, there are bagels that fit this description in New York, though not as many as you would think. And while New York may give you great bagels, it doesn’t give you any space to savor them — an apt metaphor for life in The City generally.
H&H on the Upper West Side, home to one of the most famous bagels in the world, won’t even put a spread on your bagel for you. Same goes for the equally iconic Kossar’s on the Lower East Side. And neither place offers a place to sit. Instead you must eat your bagel on the street, savagely pulling off handfuls to dip in the cream cheese in a hummus-like fashion.
At Murray’s in Chelsea — which refuses to toast — there’s some seating, but there’s a “bagels as fast food” vibe, which you’ll find at every bagel place in New York. You eat quickly so someone else can get in. You order at a counter, often after waiting in line.
It makes sense that in a city with high rent, purveyors of an inexpensive food would want to encourage you to eat it in a New York minute. And, in their defense, H&H and Kossar’s are old-school bagel bakeries that hearken back to the days when people ate at home with their families. But for someone who cares about bagels as much as I do, that simply won’t fly. I’m looking for a holistic bagel experience.
This brings me to the Miami bagel restaurant, a phenomenon that hasn’t caught on anywhere else in the country or, as far as I know, the world.
Bagel-eating in Miami is a sit-down dining experience. Certainly if you need a few dozen for your nephew’s bris or something, you can always order at the counter. But it’s generally a place you can go every day of the week, from the early morning to the late afternoon, for a real waiter to bring you your bagel on a platter. Literally, a platter, with a large scoop of (flavored) cream cheese, olives, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and cucumbers cut into long oval strips. I don’t eat fish, but if you do, you’ll get that on your platter too, in strips or as a spread. The bagel, proud and standalone, comes on its own bagel-sized plate. There are other things on the menu, standard Jewish deli fare, but the centerpiece is the bagel. Almost every bagel restaurant will have “bagel” in its name — don’t trust it if it doesn’t (I’m looking at you Roasters and Toasters) – and almost every meal you order will come with one.
Of course, there are drawbacks. Your fellow diners are mostly ancient men and women and their international nurses. It can be frustrating and sad watching an old man shake eggs off his fork for the whole minute it takes him to lift it to his mouth, eventually delivering only a small morsel successfully. The service in many of these places is uncompromisingly bad, the waitresses worn, a fact that doesn’t stop the patrons, mostly regulars, from complaining about it excessively. This also means that the places are often less than pristine, and you may begin eating at a table that hasn’t been wiped down fully between checks — more cause for loud, excessive complaining.
And yet there is something to love there. To really experience a food authentically, you must eat it with the people who care about it the most. For bagels, that’s old Jews, and Miami is packed with them, and they want to eat their thin, crunchy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside bagels sitting down. This is culture: the bagel’s natural habitat, and the very real community that convenes in it. It’s the place where the over-70 set goes to let their peers know they’re still alive, a place to see and be seen. These Bubbies and Zadies lived through Brooklyn in the 60s and 70s, or maybe they had a pushcart on the Lower East Side. They may have survived the Holocaust. They are the stuff Philip Roth novels are made of. I often accuse Miami of being absentminded about its own history, but when I eat at one of these restaurants, I sometimes catch the feeling that I’m being served some substantial, scrumptious slice of it, in the form of a bagel.
I could rank Miami’s bagel restaurants, but it isn’t necessary. The two best are Sage Bagel, on Hallandale Beach Boulevard in the North, and Bagel Emporium, on US1 in Coral Gables.
Since it’s near the University of Miami, the crowd at Bagel Emporium is a little more diverse in age. It’s a little slicker than the North Miami bagel restaurants and there’s no outside seating, but the bagels are great and the sit-down style is intact. I usually go for the everything bagel here, with veggie cream cheese and potato salad.
I’m from North Miami, so my preference is Sage Bagel in nearby Hallandale. It may just be the best bagel in the world — or so says my Bubbie, who used to tell me that they bring the water down from New York to boil the bagels in (it isn’t true, but she believes it). I started out with allegiance to the everything bagel, but I have since discovered the jalapeno bagel and can’t go back. It’s a sweet and spicy bagel, not the most traditional flavor, but utterly addictive. I eat this bagel with a veggie cream cheese platter and an extra large side of drippy potato salad.
The booths around the inside perimeter of Sage are comfortable. If you get stuck at the small square tables in the middle of the restaurant, each only inches from the next, eavesdropping on conversations about hip replacements and obituaries is unavoidable. If it’s not too hot and not too crowded, I prefer to eat outside. You’re in the plaza of a strip mall and flies can be a nuisance, but I actually find it quite pleasant.
Sage offers the brunch for all occasions: nursing a hangover, ditching your high-school morning class, catching up with old friends, enduring obligatory family breakfasts. It’s the place I always take visitors to Miami — especially those from New York — not just to wow them with the quality and authenticity of Miami bagels, but also to show them a kind of bagel paradise New York doesn’t offer, one divorced from time, where we can eat without hurry.
Sage Bagel & Deli, 800 East Hallandale Beach Boulevard. (Be forewarned: it’s not nearly as fresh-seeming inside as its website’s crisp lettuce background would have you believe.)
Bagel Emporium, 238 South Dixie Highway.
Arielle Angel is a Miami native, visual artist, and writer who now lives in Brooklyn. She is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at Columbia University.