September 17, 2009 | 2:00pm
Nearly ten years ago, the bagel craze that was sweeping the nation hit Houston. Strip mall after strip mall soon held an Einstein or a Brueger's or one of many smaller independent bagel shops. And the two stalwarts of the old Houston bagel community stood by, bemused.
Hot Bagel Shop in River Oaks and its older sister, New York Coffee Shop & Bagel in Meyerland, have been fixtures in not just the Houston bagel and Houston breakfast scene for years, but just the Houston restaurant scene in general. Hot Bagel Shop has been in its run-down and somewhat seedy location since 1984 (although it's moving
-- thankfully -- to a new space within the next month or so), and New York Bagel has been serving breakfasts and bagels since 1975.
A Houston Chronicle article from the business section in 2000 (which, of course, can't be linked to because the Chron's archived articles are famously unavailable online) discussed how other chain bagel shops were completely unable to put a dent in the business of either Hot Bagel Shop or New York Bagel, and for good reason. These two shops are the real deal. Or at least as close to the real deal as you can get in the Bayou City.
Now that the fad has all but passed, these two timeless little shops still turn out the same tasty breakfasts and bagels as always. But which shop reigned supreme in this week's Food Fight?
Hot Bagel Shop (2009 S. Shepherd Drive)
The interior of Hot Bagel Shop is stuck in the faded glory of the late 1980s or early 1990s, with sun-stained pastel posters in fake gold poster frames lining the walls alongside signed photos of the 1989 U.S. Gymnastics Team and a "Bagel Prayer" that features glitter heavily in its supplication. The cases are dingy, old and chipped. The walls and floors appear to be coated with years of cooking oil and various unknown substances. And the team behind the counter is as motley a crew as has ever been assembled to handle your food. Witness the woman who slowly took our order while eyeing us suspiciously from her two blackened eyes.
Despite all of this, Hot Bagel Shop is packed with customers every single morning from when it opens at 7 a.m. until closing at 2:30 p.m. The little shop was originally founded by a family from New Jersey in 1984, and has maintained a loyal following over the past 25 years. In addition to bagels, the shop also serves mini pizzas for lunch and an assortment of bagel dogs at breakfast.
This morning, we hungrily selected both a salt bagel with regular cream cheese and a bialy with salmon cream cheese from the case. The salt bagel tasted like a subtler version of a pretzel, which, along with the ample application of slightly tart cream cheese, made us forget all about the heavenly mall-pretzel stands of our youth. But the bialys was where Hot Bagel really shone. (A bialy is a version of the bagel, simply missing a hole; in its place is a heaping of chopped onion.) The sweet, doughy bialy, the tangy onions, the tart cream cheese and the hunks of buttery salmon scattered throughout were the stuff of our breakfast dreams.
New York Coffee Shop & Bagel (9720 Hillcroft)
For most Houstonians, a drive out to Meyerland is almost a field trip of sorts. Houston's Jewish heart still beats as strongly here as ever, and the scenic and winding drive along Braeswood past the gleaming buildings that house the Congregation Beth Israel and the Jewish Community Center is a relaxing but long one. So is it truly worth it to make the drive all the way out to Hillcroft simply for a bagel?
The answer is yes. Stepping inside the diner half of New York Bagel is like stepping into New Jersey, specifically a New Jersey diner that your grandmother frequents. It's terribly old-fashioned and filled with handwritten signs and hordes of retirement-home escapees with their walkers -- in short, it's completely charming. You can order a few dozen bagels to go from the bakery next door, but it's far more entertaining to eat your bagel on this side of the door.
The bialy from New York Bagels is even more authentic than the one from Hot Bagel, and ten times tastier. The dough is that amazing combination of crisp and slightly browned on the outside and chewy and fluffy on the inside. Biting into the bialy, you're hard-pressed not to spontaneously shut your eyes and moan out loud. The salmon cream cheese spread is simply an added bonus -- every bit as good as Hot Bagel's, but it doesn't really matter when the bialy is this good.
We could be cheesy here and say that Houston is the winner for having two such wonderful bagel shops in town. But, truthfully, the real winner is New York Bagels -- by a hair. Although it's inconvenient for most people to drive to, it's worth it not only for the tasty bagels but also for the airplane-less trip to New Jersey. But if you simply aren't up for the drive, Hot Bagel is a very close second. Which will you be choosing for breakfast on Saturday?