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It's no secret that our town's in the middle of a bagel explosion. Last fall's yellow pages listed fewer than ten bagel shops, but today it's possible to encounter nearly that many newly sprouted bagel purveyors just by motoring around the Galleria area for an hour or so. Like some hundredth monkey phenomenon, there seems to have been a mass leap in consciousness in Houston such that almost everyone is contracting, or anticipating, bagel fever.
Every interested party has her or his theory about this sudden increase, and all of them -- such as observing that Houston is simply later than some other cities to discover that bagels are a really good food, or that bagels cater to people's increased interest in eating healthily -- sound plausible enough. But in the end, just like with falling in love, who can explain the chemistry involved in a trend?
Those in the bagel business, not surprisingly, are quick to disavow the idea that bagelmania is "merely" a trend. They tend to point to the bagel's century-old popularity in, say, New York City as a sort of testament to bagel-truth. They could be right. But what's wrong with being part of a trend, I ask? More than a few trends have evolved into institutions. It's here. Accept it. Taste it.
If bagels are going to be the fast food of the future, there's plenty of room for interpretation of the product, as well as of its presentation. And there are plenty of differences among the city's recent crop of bagel dealerships: some stay true to their New York deli roots, while others emphasize a swankier milieu that invites patrons to linger. But even though all the bagelmeisters have reasons why their product is special or unique, all the shops I visited had high-quality, fresh bagels in common. Any one of them would be a fine place to stop by for a dozen bagels and some interesting cream cheese variations. Truth be told (and I'll no doubt make enemies among the fans of particular shops by saying this), I didn't notice any significant difference in bagel quality among any of the places I visited. They all prepare their bagels following authentic bagel protocol -- boiling the dough for a bit before baking -- and they all get decorously chewy and conscientiously fresh results. They all offer tried and true bagel flavors such as plain and pumpernickel, as well as haute or regional varieties such as sun-dried tomato or jalapeno. And they all charge roughly the same price. In the end, I found that a garlic bagel from one bagel dealer is pretty much the same as a garlic bagel from the competitor down the street.
Having said that, I will offer the caveat that the bagels from Bruegger's Bagels (5510 Morningside, 522-3137) possess two subtle differences I found to my liking: their bagel is a tad smaller and therefore cuter, and the surface is crisper. It fairly crackles when you bite into it. Bruegger's, which began in Troy, New York, and lays claim to being the nation's largest bagel purveyor, with more than 225 stores, has a rigorous chain-restaurant consistency going for it. With plans to open 40 locations in the Houston area by 1999, Bruegger's is undoubtedly the most aggressive bagel merchant to join the local melee. You get the feeling that every location sports the same upscale deli look of faux mahogany, black lacquer and black-and-white tile floors. And that every location sports the same enthusiastic PR hype.
In classic chain fashion, Bruegger's specialty bagel sandwiches are constructed by the counter attendants from headquarters-distributed diagram cards. One of those sandwiches -- named, I regret to report, the Leonardo da Veggie -- is worth a try. A pile of roasted red peppers, lettuce, red onion, tomato and muenster cheese with a smear of herb garlic cream cheese, it's a mountain of crunch and zip. It snaps right to attention when served on a toasted, almost-bitter garlic bagel. A slather of Dijon mustard -- which you'll have to ask for, since it's not part of the designated blueprint -- enlivens it even more. And it's served attractively: each half is propped in a little tissue paper pocket so that you're presented with a colorful cross section of the creation. With a cup of their brewed-every-20-minutes coffee, a specialty sandwich at Bruegger's makes for a swell lunch. If, that is, you ignore the too-cutesy cartoon murals of bakers doing their thing with bagels.
While not calling itself the country's largest bagel chain, Manhattan Bagel (4704-C Richmond Avenue, 627-3343) does claim to have 240 stores nationwide (15 more than Bruegger's boasts, but who's counting?). The Houston shop was opened in January by Bill Edge, part owner of the Confederate House. (Other franchisees have opened locations in Sugar Land and Kingwood.) At lunchtime, the store's name is particularly fitting, given the Manhattan-like difficulty of finding a parking place in its Richmond strip center. This pleasant but unassuming shop is your basic bagel shop plus your basic deli, offering your basic turkey, roast beef, tuna and lox sandwiches. Here I encountered probably the most accommodating service I've ever had at a semi-serve restaurant. Server, sandwich-maker and cashier Madonna Unlu made me feel like I was a guest at her home. That good service did a lot to compensate after I nearly sent myself into sodium overload by ordering a chicken salad sandwich on a salt bagel. The bagel by itself was satisfying in the way you'd expect a doughnut-shaped soft pretzel to be. And though the chicken salad was nothing to write home about, it was in combination with the bagel that it became a salt-heavy monster. The pairing was deadly, even with the atoning factors of lettuce and tomatoes. I made up for my overdose by taking home half a dozen bagels and a tub of olive and pimento cream cheese spread, which is great, strangely enough, smeared onto one of Manhattan's spinach bagels.