Dough bobs like a yeasty life preserver in a boiling sea of malted water. Hand-formed coils encrusted with European salts and farm-fresh leeks brown in blistering ovens. Even cream cheese goes experimental in tart revelations of Korean kimchi and chewy veins of salted caramel. On the heels of pizza, ramen, and ice cream, bagels have finally joined local artisans’ quest for new flavors of perfection.
After years of enduring loofah impersonations, locals are embracing a brave new clan of bagelmeisters who lather tradition with the taste of Portland: unorthodox and ingredient-focused. Where else are you going to find a baker’s dozen and hand-smoked Columbia River steelhead lox served from a food truck? Jewish grandmothers, avert your eyes: here come pastrami charcuterie boards, paired with bacon cream cheese and Manischewitz-spiked daiquiris.
The explorations are just beginning. Here are five contenders for Portland’s holey grail.
The Empire Builder: Kenny and Zuke’s
Multiple locations; kennyandzukes.com
Kenny and Zuke’s helped pioneer Portland’s artisan Jewish deli movement in 2007. Judging by this year’s rapid expansions, owner Ken Gordon has bigger whitefish to fry: wholesale networks in coffee shops and supermarkets, an all-bagel spinoff shop, and a late-night Deli Bar serving serious cocktails and a “Jew-cuterie board” sporting pastrami rillettes. Indeed, Kenny and Zuke’s turns out a respectable bagel with a tight, honey-brown skin, but it’s marred at times by super-sweet flesh. The overall selection appeals, however, from monthly salt bagels courtesy of local expert Mark Bitterman to a pumpernickel that could pass for ebony.
Schmear Factor A modest lineup includes a maple syrup–infused schmear with cracks of walnut and a briny green olive cream cheese with flecks of succulent pimento.
The Holey Grail Cheddar-Pecorino—cheesy umami dough meets a flaky Tillamook cheddar crust.
The Wood-Fired Locavore: Tastebud
Hillsdale and PSU Farmers Markets; tastebudfarm.com
Mark Doxtader, Montreal Bagel School apostle and farmers market advocate, flies in his own bagel orbit. After a boil in malt-sweetened water, Doxtader’s rings are charred over a wood fire for a dark caramel sheen that yields to swirls of amber banded beneath the exterior. Each small, compact variation is a little model of perfection, rolled in a black cloud of poppy seeds or scented with fresh leeks—none of the usual bitter-tinged onions. Seasonal ingredients, like roasted peppers, are gleaned from neighboring booths at Doxtader’s usual haunts, the Portland and Hillsdale Farmers Markets.
Schmear Factor Doxtader scours the markets for the finest chives, the most feathery dill, and the best local honey to fold into his creamy base for a fresh, bright selection.
The Holey Grail Leek—confetti strips of blackened leeks sing sweet, toasted-onion notes.
The New “Portland style”: Spielman Coffee Roasters
2128 SE Division St; 503-467-0600
At this tiny, year-old shop, a small-batch sourdough bagel can be dispatched with a cup of microroasted coffee from a gigantic steam-punk roaster just steps away from the oven. It doesn’t get more Portland than this. After 15 years in the coffee roasting trenches, Rick Spielman made an impressive leap into his own, self-made bagel world. He’s staking his brand on the little-known sourdough bagel, putting its tart flavor at the center of a dozen variations, from sweet golden raisin and fennel to the “Seedy,” collaged with the gold, black, and green seeds of flax, watermelon, and pumpkin. Purists might scoff at the powerfully tangy sour foundation, but Spielman’s tight, thick-crusted beauties are arguably leading the Portland pack, proudly wearing freshly ground spices and crackling faithfully with each bite.
Schmear Factor All the thick-whipped cream cheese schmears are worth a swab, especially the perversely delicious salted caramel, tasting like a heavenly cheesecake with caramelized sugar and dairy tang. The roasted peppers, zucchini, and garlic option holds a buckshot of freshness.
The Holey Grail Salt & Pepper—complex, with huge flakes of salt and sinus-clearing
The Food Cart Upstart: Alice’s Bagels
4262 SE Belmont St; facebook.com/alicesbagels
Recent Reed College graduate Alice Newton is putting her chemistry degree to good use, cold-fermenting dough and house-curing Columbia River steelhead lox, sourced from cart-neighbor Fishbox and sliced to order. Inside her A-framed cart in the Good Food Here pod on SE Belmont Street, Newton sells a perfectly sized bagel that weighs in at just 3.5 ounces—a featherweight compared to today’s supersize standard. A pillow-soft crumb and salty dough await within a mahogany bubbling crust that looks more like fossilized amber than boiled breadstuff.
Schmear Factor You can’t go wrong with the sweet and savory maple-bacon spread, with big chunks of super smoky meat and deep Grade B maple syrup.
Holey Grail Sesame—featuring crunchy clumps of toasted, malt-glazed sesame seeds.
A New York State of Mind: Bowery Bagels
310 NW Broadway; bowerybagels.com
At his new downtown bagel shop disguised as a gleaming Manhattan subway station, Michael Madigan chases the New York memories of his youth with a dozen classics and the occasional oddball flavors (miso-soy-ginger, we’re looking at you). Bowery’s bagels are exactly what we’d expect from a solid New York carb-bomb: a nicely bronzed exterior flush with blisters from fermentation, a healthy chew, and subtle yeasty undertones.
Schmear Factor For a bagel shop so closely wedded to tradition, the cream cheese selection has schmeared slightly off-course. Spreads like the BOM (bacon, onion, mushroom) are heavy and overwhelming, while the kimchi variety reminds us that fermented fish sauce and Nova lox are not the same thing.
Holey Grail Cinnamon Raisin Spice—sweet globs of raisin, with deep flavors from across the spice spectrum.