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.
If you are looking for chicken salad that is worth writing your relatives about, check out the offering at City Bagels (6534 Woodway, 973-1977). Its oniony overtones are set off adroitly by the sweetness of a honey wheat bagel. In a world filled with too many forgettable chicken salads, this version is worth a drive. City Bagels, located at Woodway and Voss with another outlet soon to open in Highland Village, is strictly a local concern. Nelson Devega, its thirtysomething owner, is trying to create a bagel shop/destination restaurant combo. The look, with its glazed concrete floor and spare furnishings, could be called industrial-meets-Republican. Artsy, yet, in a nod to its Memorial-area clientele, not too risky. I was intrigued to find chai, an Indian spiced tea, offered on the menu board. With a big puff of steamed milk froth crowning it, this was like no chai I'd ever had. This version, sweeter, milkier and much less astringent than what's found in most Indian restaurants, was an agreeable departure from coffee with dessert. And what's for dessert? Rice Krispie treats, made from the same family recipe much of America grew up on.
Dessert at many of the new bagel shops could consist of a bagel, for they each offer sweet varieties such as strawberry or chocolate chip. But Bagel Express (728 Meyerland Plaza, 664-9894) was the only place I encountered M&M bagels. Chocoholics, beware! This creation's pink, yellow and brown candy swirls, plus its globs of chocolate, stirred into an unsweetened dough, had just enough chocolate to trigger one friend's chocolate cravings, but not quite enough to satisfy it. A smear of chocolate chip-laced cream cheese helped to increase the chocolate satisfaction level, though.
Adorned on one wall with a black-and-white cartoon mural depicting a row of urban storefronts, Bagel Express is another spot that pays homage to the American bagel's New York roots. A photo of a young Gregory Peck next to the cash register finds him pondering whether to make his next meal at Cafe Annie or Bagel Express. If he decides on Bagel Express, I can recommend the generous Join-the-Club sandwich, with its classic club configuration of turkey breast, ham, bacon and cheese -- I liked it on a sesame bagel. I can also recommend the chewy, oblong slabs of Bagel Bread French Toast, cinnamon-raisin flavor. (Bagel Express has a full grill and serves omelets, hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches and the like.) But I would warn him to stay away from the tasteless, too-mayonnaisey chicken salad, and I would also warn him that even if he comes for a sit-down breakfast, he's going to be served it on Styrofoam plates with disposable utensils and coffee cups.
But then, it can be argued that bagel shops have never meant to aspire to fine dining. Like their fast food counterparts, bagels are often eaten in the car, with the driver balancing a cup of coffee precariously in her lap. And for that purpose, Houston will soon be a city lucky enough to have options on nearly every corner.
Finally, a small mea culpa. In my review of Tuscany Grill, I noted that I ate my focaccia-like bread sopping with olive oil. I should have known better. As owner Kristi Lemex kindly reminded me, the Tuscany Grill uses grapeseed oil, not olive oil. It has a slightly different, lighter taste. The restaurant prides itself on its use of the oil, and rightly so.