Consider it a "holey day." Feb. 9 is National Bagel Day, but if you forgot to celebrate this morning by stopping at your local bagel shop, why not end the day with the starchy treat. As I recently learned firsthand, bagels are more than just a breakfast food. They can also be lunch, dinner and even dessert, especially on Long Island, where bagel shops are plentiful and some never close their doors. In my search for the epitome of boiled and baked dough — the best bagel on Long Island -- I drove more than 150 miles and visited 16 different shops that span the South Shore. And, yes, I ate 16 different bagels along the way. I endured rain, snow and some queasiness from the countless calories I consumed in my pursuit. I tasted plain, and French toast bagels — and everything in between — and flavored cream cheeses that seemed like something out of a really good dream. (I'm looking at you, Nutella, and bacon scallion.) I set out to find the perfect bagel, but instead I learned a few lessons. And to save you the bellyaches and gas money, I'm passing those on.
Long Islanders are spoiled.
Crowning one bagel the best of Long Island was a difficult, perhaps impossible, task, because there were so many great ones. Plus, the variety — from sweet French toast to savory everything ones — makes it hard to compare. Throw in the wide assortment of cream cheeses, and picking just one favorite becomes pretty much futile. But Long Islanders, this is a really, really good problem to have, and one not to be taken for granted. One bagel shop owner says he regularly sees customers who come from upstate just to get Long Island bagels.
Celebs need their bagel fix, too.
The only thing more famous than Goldberg's Famous Bagels and Flagels on the East End are some of the customers who have stopped into its East Hampton store. The owner didn't want to name names, but one customer said Sarah Jessica Parker had been sighted there. Lynbrook Bagels also got a visit from actor Justin Long, who was filming a movie nearby. So the next time you're in a bagel shop, be on the lookout for a famous face.
Bagel shops are few and far between out East.
Unlike Nassau and western Suffolk, where bagel shops can be found every few blocks, East Enders can drive for miles without encountering a place to satisfy their craving for boiled and baked dough. When I arrived at the second stop on my list, East Quoque Eatery, which opened only about a year ago, I found a dark, empty store with this sign in the window. I then had to drive for about 20 minutes on Montauk Highway until I came upon a bagel shop that was still in business.
A good bagel won't stand the test of time.
No, a good bagel won't stand the test of time, but a good shop will. Many of the shops we visited had been in business for more than 20 years, including Lynbrook Bagels. Kaitlyn Clancy, one of the owners of the family-operated shop, said their bagels aren't made with preservatives, which is why they don't stay fresh very long. "You know the trueness and authenticity of it, because it's not something that you can eat three days later and it will still taste OK," she said.
Life is getting sweeter with the rise of French toast bagels.
Not every bagel shop has them, but more of them are carrying French toast bagels -- and thus, the world is becoming a better place. First Class Bagels in Deer Park is even taking it up a notch with this Chocolate Chip French toast bagel that's been dusted with cinnamon brown sugar.
Don't be afraid to experiment
There's an art to not only making bagels, but also finding the perfect bagel and schmear combinations. At Wellwood Bagels and Bialys in Lindenhurst, employee Anthony La Magna said that for a long time he didn't know the best way to eat a French toast bagel. Then, he started experimenting with the shop's collection of flavored cream cheeses and discovered the French toast with apple-cinnamon-raisin cream cheese pairing. "It's an explosion of flavor," he said. So don't be afraid to get creative.
I give you the 'bagelfie'
I'm calling it the "bagelfie." It's a selfie with a bagel, and I'm challenging you to post one with your favorite Long Island bagel. Share it on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook using the hashtag #bestlibagel.
Bacon is worth the hype.
I had never considered myself a big bacon fan, but after sampling the bacon herb cream cheese at Moriches Bagel Deli in Center Moriches, and then going all in with an everything bagel covered with bacon scallion cream cheese at Beach Bagel in Long Beach, I'm now a believer. Yes, bacon is delicious. I now understand the hype.
Less is more.
It's true that in life and with bagels, simpler can sometimes be better. Sure, I tasted some amazingly indulgent flavored cream cheeses on some unique bagels throughout the day, but at Moriches Bagel Deli in Center Moriches I held more restraint when ordering. I chose the blueberry bagel toasted with a little butter and found that less is more. The blueberry flavor was subtle, not overbearing, and the butter only enhanced it. If I had instead chosen a crazy cream cheese, it would have overpowered, maybe even clashed, with the bagel.
Bagels have secrets, too.
At Bagels Your Way Cafe in Medford, I bit into this whole wheat everything with the store's "famous veggie" cream cheese and my taste buds rejoiced. The owner told me, "There is a secret sauce to the everything," but he was very tight-lipped when I tried to get more details.
Eating 16 bagels in a 12-hour span is like a marathon. If you come out too strong in the beginning, you're going to hit the wall — which in this case means severe indigestion. It's important to pace yourself. Eat only half or maybe just a few bites, and save the rest for later. That way you can sample all the best that Long Island has to offer without getting sick. Oh, and after all this carb-loading, I should probably find a marathon to run to burn off all this energy.
Eat your fruits and veggies.
Bagels can consist of more that just carbs and cream cheese. At Bagels & Brunch in Speonk, this yummy apple cinnamon cream cheese contains pieces of real apple. And Lynbrook Bagels claims to have created the world's first bagel made of pureed vegetables. The owner says they're in the process of having it patented.
Have bagels, will travel.
Bagels make a great meal when you're on the go because they're portable. This everything with sundried tomato and basil cream cheese, from Bagel Plaza of South Merrick, was my dinner. While there, an employee told me that their bagels also travel the world. The store not only ships them, but she said that when customers are leaving the country, they'll buy a stockpile of bagels to get through the trip. You can take the Long Islander out of Long Island, but they're bringing their bagels with them.
There's a happy hour for bagels.
You don't have to imbibe to enjoy happy hour. In fact, bagel lovers have their own happy hour — or power hour, as it's called — at Magic Bagels of Hewlett. Between 4 and 5 p.m., one hour before the store closes, all bagels, coffee and other baked goods are half price. A buck will get you two bagels, and if you ask, an employee can help you find the freshest ones.
Nutella cream cheese exists!
No, you are not dreaming. Some really smart person, maybe a wizard, concocted a cream cheese made with Nutella, the hazelnut spread with a cult-like following, and it tastes magical. Actually, as the night manager at Oceanside 24-Hour Long Island Bagel Cafe pointed out, "It tastes like cheesecake." He recommended having it on an egg bagel, which I was skeptical about at first, but it was a match made in heaven. Another lesson learned: Trust the bagel experts and you won't be disappointed.
The best bagel is the one you can eat.
At Bare Naked Bakery in Bellmore, I tried my very first gluten-free bagel. It didn't taste like a traditional New York bagel. The texture reminded me of Irish soda bread, but it was good in its own way, and if you're allergic to gluten, this is probably the only bagel you can sink your teeth into without getting sick. (And a life with no bagels seems like no life at all.) So, for some people, the best bagel is the one they can actually eat because it won't make them ill.
Bagels can be a dessert, too.
Bagels can take you through an entire day. They can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even dessert, like this decadent French toast bagel with chocolate-chip cream cheese. I ordered it from A&S Bagels in Franklin Square to cap off my adventure.
The journey can be rewarding.
Searching for the perfect Long Island bagel can be tough, perhaps even impossible, but the journey is full of rewards.
LIers are passionate about bagels.
Long Islanders are loyal, passionate and particular about their bagel places. Everybody seems to have a favorite and they're ready to go to battle for it. When we asked people to tweet us their recommendations using the hashtag #bestlibagel, these are just some of the many spirited responses we received. Unfortunately, we couldn't make it to every store. But out of the 31 places we did visit, we're going to let you vote on which one is the best.