For a few halcyon years during the late 1980s, I started every day with a bagel from Zooky’s, on Third Avenue and 17th Street in Manhattan. The bagels, boiled in a kettle in plain view and then baked, on burlap-lined wooden planks in an ancient oven, were crisp to the point of hardness, the crust could draw blood. They were little, maybe four inches across, slightly sweet and inarguably dense. In 1992, Zooky’s closed and, since then, I’ve never had a bagel that compared. (Bagel Hole on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn comes closest; on Long Island I’d give the nod to Fairway’s mini bagels.)
What I’ve learned over the past two decades is that while almost every bagel disappoints, bialys rarely do. Unlike bagels, which are boiled and then baked, bialys are simply baked. Instead of a hole they have a depression that is usually filled with onions. It’s about as hard to find a bad bialy as it is to find a bad English muffin.
I have a few theories about this. First, like English muffins, bialys are made to be split and toasted. That last-minute cooking livens up the bialy, bringing out its yeasty flavors, and putting a nice crust on it. (An untoasted bialy is, by design, rather pale.) It’s also true that bialys just aren’t as popular as bagels — no one is going to get rich selling them — and so deli suppliers and national chains have pretty much left them alone.
My go-to bialy purveyor is Bagels & Bialys, at 1152 Willis Ave., Albertson, 516-621-9520.