Salt splendor at Bagel City
Salt splendor at Bagel City Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Capitalism routinely wreaks havoc inside bagel shops. In an effort to please every last customer, bagelries often produce a ridiculous assortment of doughy products, from the standard sesame and cinnamon-raisin to the pointless blueberry and chocolate chip and beyond.

The casualty of variety is often the staple. Step into Clarendon’s Brooklyn Bagel Bakery around noon and ask for a salt bagel. It’s a hit-or-miss proposition—sometimes there’ll be a couple of stale stragglers sitting there, but often you’re staring into an empty bin. Same thing happens frequently at Pumpernickels Deli in upper Northwest, where the salts sell out fast.

A salt-bagel snub is worse than a plain-bagel snub or a poppy-bagel snub or even a whole wheat-bagel snub. That’s because a salt bagel isn’t a meal or a snack—it’s an addiction. Says one saltie on a message board: “I used to like the kind with everything, but my husband turned me on to salt only and now I’m like a junkie over them.”

The wonder of the salt bagel lies in its simplicity. Salt is already an ingredient in the standard bagel recipe, so coating the exterior of the dough ball with pretzel salt merely takes its yeasty, bready pleasures to a higher, more pronounced level. Another point in its favor: Salt interacts wonderfully with the fat-heavy coatings—whether cream cheese or butter—that commonly get slapped on bagels.

Eric Patel, owner of Manhattan’s Bagel & Bean, says the optimal salt bagel needs to start with the fundamentals, meaning that the rolling must be done by hand, not by machine. Then the dough coils must be boiled in water, not steamed as some faux-bagel bakers do. And they have to be smothered in salt. “We’re not stingy,” says Patel of the toppings on his bagels. If a customer finds one too salty, says Patel, they’re welcome to scrape some off.

Scraping surplus salt off of a bagel, it’s safe to say, doesn’t happen much around Washington. Part of the reason is that bagels—salt or otherwise—are a bit scarce in these parts. The bagel boomed in and around downtown in the early ’90s, but its purveyors, including Whatsa Bagel and the Chesapeake Bagel Bakery, have closed stores in recent years.

Gentrification has helped create a need for more coffee shops and cafes around the center of the city, but it’s done little for the lowly bagel. It seems that the industrial trappings of bagel making—the big boiling kettles, huge ovens, and the like—don’t mesh with the business plans of a Big Bear Café or 14U Cafe.

Just as troubling, those places that still sell salt bagels have somehow missed Patel’s lesson on applying generous amounts of the featured topping. Indeed, the quantity of salt, not to mention its even distribution over the entire bagel, gives us two handy criteria for a ranking of local salt bagels, moving from worst to best.

Bagels Etc.
2122 P St. NW, (202) 466-7171

Even a salt-bagel addict can pass up this iteration without any misgivings. The salt on top of the bagel is arranged in something resembling a Beltway traffic jam, with few crystals placed elsewhere. The fundamentals, too, are lacking—from the featureless crust to the ho-hum innards.

Brooklyn Bagel Bakery
2055 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 243-4442

This Clarendon hot spot needs to look at the undersides of its salties. There’s just not enough white there. Another disqualifier: One Brooklyn salt batch tasted a lot like the garlic or onion bagels that had been baked moments before. Clean your cooking surfaces, Brooklyn!

Pumpernickels Deli
5504 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 244-9505

This lovely, hole-in-the-wall joint in Chevy Chase, D.C., has something of a distribution problem. The salt is heavy on the bagel’s uppers but scarce down below. Trouble here is that if you’re eating the bagel in halves—a common move despised by purists—you’ll find yourself grafting salt from the upper to the lower. The Pumpies’ crust is a touch on the chewy side, but these are fine bagels, all in all.

Georgetown Bagelry
3245 M St. NW, (202) 965-1011

Quantity is the issue here. Though the salt’s evenly distributed, there’s just too much unseasoned terrain on Georgetown’s classic New York bagel. And that’s too bad, because the crust and dough are superb.

Bagel City
12119 Rockville Pike, (301) 231-8080

This colorful spot in a Rockville Pike strip mall should damn well have the best bagels around. Its founder, after all, was a member of the legendary New York union that, for decades, had a stranglehold on bagel-making talent in the ultimate bagel city. But Irv Zlotnick retired years ago, leaving the biz and a 150-year-old recipe in the hands of some thoroughly trained successors.

The tradition is doing just fine. Here, the dough is produced fresh every day, the toppings are top-notch, and the bagels are baked every 20 minutes. If you take a seat, you’re bound to see workers huffing fresh ones from the oven to the baskets out front. “Some places sell day-old bagels. We don’t do that,” says General Manager Anna Alvarado.

At Bagel City, each side of the salt bagel gets special attention throughout the baking process, a bit of TLC that ensures a generous and even distribution of the all-important topping. And this bagel is strong on dough and crust, hitting just the right balance between exterior toughness and interior pliability.

The best part about Bagel City, though, is this: “Call 30 minutes ahead, and we can bake any bagel you want,” says Alvarado. In other words, no salt shortages here.