In Search of a Uniquely San Franciscan Bagel

The classic circular bread is no longer the sole purview of New York City.

For Reesa Kashuk, bagels are at once mystical and mundane. 

Born and raised in New York City in a Jewish family, birthdays, bar and bat mitzvahs and family celebrations weren’t complete without bagels, lox from Russ & Daughters, and elaborate spreads. But bagels also defined unassuming weekend mornings, when Kashuk and her mother would meet her father after his shift as a late-night radio DJ for sesame bagels with butter at a neighborhood shop.

“Bagels were an emotional food for me but also a standard food in New York City,” says Kashuk, who started the Poppy Bagels pop-up in Oakland out of homesickness for the bagels of her childhood.

Kashuk is part of a growing bagel renaissance in the Bay Area, made possible by more established shops like Berkeley’s Boichik Bagels, Oakland’s Beauty’s Bagel Shop, and San Francisco’s Daily Driver — and furthered by newer pop-ups, including Poppy Bagels, Schlok’s Bagels and Midnite Bagel in San Francisco, Hella Bagels in Oakland, and Ethel’s Bagels in Petaluma. In a region that was long infamous for inferior bagels (at least according to New Yorkers), they’re shaping a distinct Bay Area bagel culture that both pays homage to and branches out from the New York City gold standard.

Kashuk is a bagel purist. Sorely disappointed by the local bagel options when she moved to San Francisco six years ago, she embarked on the labor-intensive process of making them at home when she wasn’t working her main gig at an advertising agency. She had no professional cooking experience but was instead guided by years of consuming New York City bagels. She set out to recreate that “nostalgic, old-school” bagel, boiling them one by one in a pot in her home kitchen. 

Kashuk eventually sold her bagels to friends and developed enough of a buzz to start catering just before the pandemic hit this spring. She stopped making bagels due to the shutdown but after an outpouring of demand, started delivering them to people’s homes. By July, the pop-up had grown enough that she quit her advertising job to focus on Poppy Bagels full time. She now offers five bagel flavors for pickup and delivery in San Francisco and Oakland, and they’re also available on Saturdays at Noe Cafe in San Francisco.  

Kashuk describes her bagel style as East Coast-inspired but California-influenced. (The name Poppy Bagels refers to the classic topping and the California state flower.) Her bagels — chewy and soft but not overly dense — are hand-rolled, boiled, slightly savory from malt powder and always seeded on both sides. But she uses organic flour from Central Milling Co. in Petaluma, salt harvested from the San Francisco Bay, seeds from Oaktown Spice Shop in Oakland, and offers cream cheese flavors like wasabi-tobiko-lime, truffle-chive and “briny” (capers and pickles) .

“I’ve tried to lean into making these bagels in California,” Kashuk says. “I’m open to trying to use local ingredients and I’m influenced by the place but the flavor and the texture, I’m definitely trying to recreate the New York bagel and hold it to that same standard.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Midnite Bagel, which might make the most San Francisco bagel of them all: a naturally leavened, sourdough bagel created in the image of Tartine Bakery bread. 

Nick Beitcher, former head bread baker at Tartine, started Midnite Bagel as a nighttime pop-up last year. With a wild yeast sourdough culture and 24-hour fermentation, his bagels evoke the signature tang of sourdough. He makes six bagel flavors, including a more unusual buckwheat-black sesame. At the Tartine pop-ups he’d serve Margherita pizza bagels alongside beer and natural wine.

“All of the other people who are making bagels, you can tell there’s this desire to take something familiar and turn it into something that feels more rooted in California,” Beitcher said. “You can feel this desire for people to have something that is connected to the historical bagel but feels modern.”

Beitcher was born in San Francisco but lived in New York and has family on the East Coast. He also associates bagels with classic versions served at Jewish family gatherings, though his creations are uniquely of San Francisco.

“San Francisco has such an incredible baking community and tradition, especially around sourdough, and the more I thought about it the more it made sense — or the more it didn’t make sense that there wasn’t a really great bagel in that tradition,” he says.

Beitcher left Tartine a few months ago to run Midnite Bagels full time. He now has a stand at the Ferry Building Farmers Market, offers home delivery and a weekly pickup at Camper in Menlo Park.

Schlok’s Bagels, a pandemic-born pop-up at The Snug in San Francisco, has also forged its own bagel style. The Snug’s managing partner, Zack Schwab, spent years bugging James Lok, his former roommate and a fine-dining chef who cooked at The Restaurant at Meadowood and Benu, about teaming up to bring a better bagel to the Bay Area. It wasn’t until the shutdown that Lok, at home and out of work, finally agreed to spend his days meticulously tweaking recipes down to the gram, until they made a bagel they were satisfied with. 

“Originally we were using the New York bagel as the holy grail we wanted to replicate,” Schwab says. “Along the way we had several a-ha moments that ultimately led us to realize: We have to pave our own way here. We can’t just be a bagel city that’s forever trying to mimic New York.”

The bagels at Schlok’s (a combination of the founders’ last names and a cheeky nod to the Yiddish word that means “shoddy” or “inferior”) are towering in size and deeply flavored, in part thanks to organic malted barley syrup. They figured out that, yes, the water in New York City does make a difference, but tweaking the PH levels of San Francisco tap water helps approximate it. 

Their bagels are proofed overnight on wooden boards dusted with cornmeal (which imparts a thick crust), hand-rolled, boiled and baked. Controversially, they’re seeded only on the bottom. Schwab and Lok like the idea of getting two bagels in one: a caramelized, plain top and sesame seeds, poppy seeds, onion, salt or everything seasoning on the bottom.

They’ve tweaked their recipe to local tastes, which they said has resulted in an airier, less dense bagel than those in New York.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that San Franciscans … want the density and chew but something that’s a touch softer, a little fluffier and definitely packed full of flavor,” Lok said. “We’re obviously in the midst of defining what a San Francisco bagel is.”

The Bay Area’s appetite for a better bagel seems bottomless, and it’s only grown with pandemic comfort food cravings. The bagel pop-ups regularly sell out — Schlok’s usually within minutes — and the owners of at least two became successful enough to leave their day jobs, move into commercial kitchens and hire their first employees. Schwab and Lok hope to open a brick-and-mortar location of Schlok’s. 

They’re all tapping into people’s deep emotional attachment to the bagel.

“There’s this weird, innate, emotional craving for certain tastes you grew up with,” says Emily Winston of Boichik Bagels. “It’s like an archery target. It’s not an exact point but there’s a bullseye that’s a couple inches across and if you hit that bullseye, it triggers that taste memory. It’s a very powerful thing.”

Winston is excited to see more up-and-coming bagel makers, both those aligned with the classic style and those blazing their own paths.

“What we have here already seems to be a whole ecology of different bagels,” she says. “Now that we’ve proven that it is possible to make great bagels here, more people will wind up doing it.”

Maybe that’s how the Bay Area’s bagel scene will finally compete with New York’s: bagels becoming as accessible as they are special.


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