Requiem for a Restaurant

2022 began quietly, cautiously. Moving tenuously on tip-toes, carefully stepping around the remnants of the pandemic while trying to move forward anew, the trajectory was unclear. For a while, business began to improve, life started humming ahead like “normal” while we picked up the pieces of a broken society. Despite clear progress, it feels like running in place when we stop to look up at the unchanged scenery around us. Alas, that’s not true; if anything, in many ways, we’re going backwards again.

Right now, as I do at the close of every year, I’m talking about the restaurants that have left us. This was a particularly brutal culling to look back on, wiping out true pillars of our Austin vegan community in a matter of months. What once seemed stable, unshakable, and always reliable are now mere memories. Such losses are crushing, but let’s take a moment to celebrate the fleeting moments that we were fortunate enough to share.

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Get Your Game On, Go Play

The loss of play in the average adult’s life is downright tragic. It’s not like we ever outgrow the desire to have fun. We don’t sit down one day, make a spread sheet of all the extraneous things we can stand to lose (like guilt, shame, and misplaced emotions) and decide that the things bringing us joy, for no other purpose than to be happier in that moment, should be crossed off the list. What gives? Why do you have to be a “child at heart” to do something outside of work, just because you want to?

Forget that nonsense. I’ve spent too many years without any play, and now I’m taking it back. I’ve found my happy place at Cidercade, open to all ages and levels of maturity. Take your family, take your friends, take your dates, or just take your damn self; I’m tired of needing an excuse to get out and make merry.

What Games Can You Play At Cidercade?

For one flat fee of $10, you get all-day access to hundreds of arcade games. We’re talking new and retro, including pinball, fighters and shooters, sports like air hockey and skee-ball, racing, music like guitar hero and dancing; pretty much everything else you, your parents, or your kids ever loved. If you play your cards right, you can stay active and treat this as a cheaper alternative to a gym membership too.

What’s There to Drink and Eat At Cidercade?

Of course, the abundant options for hard beverages on tap might negate all those gains. All the drinks are Austin East Ciders exclusives, with lots of limited edition flavors you won’t find in cans. I’m forever craving the cream soda hard cider that popped up well over a year ago, but have never been disappointed by the classics, categorized by sweetness. For the non-drinkers, there’s unlimited Maine Root Soda option for just $4. They’re all made with cane sugar too, no corn syrup, presenting a distinct upgrade over the sticky fountain beverages of yore.

The real crowning glory of this establishment is the pizza. Honestly, these handmade pizzas have no right being so good. It’s an arcade, after all; shouldn’t the food be an afterthought? That’s certainly not the case here, where the pies come out fast and hot. Crispy, thin, and beautifully blistered crusts support a wide range of topping options, including perfectly gooey, fully melted vegan cheese. Caramelized onions and mushrooms are a must for me, which always comes out perfectly cooked and richly umami. I hear there are even gluten-free options, but haven’t been tempted to venture a taste.

There are five Cidercade locations across Texas, in Austin, Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, and Arlington. Set aside time for your next play date today.

The Hole Story About Austin Bagels

Bagels are such a unique, distinctive class of bread that they deserve their own category. Visually, texturally, and fundamentally, they barely even resemble other yeasted staples. Every element is critical to the overall experience, from the glossy, chewy crust to the dense crumb inside. Few have successfully mastered the art of bagelry, and not just for lack of the alkaline water found in New York City.

Where can you get the best bagels?

Aside from making your own from scratch, access to quality options remains limited, especially outside of major cities. Sad to say, nothing found in the bread aisle of your local grocery store will ever measure up. Fortunately, it’s not a dying art- Quite the contrary. Out of nostalgia, cravings, and blind ambition, more and more young bakers across the country are throwing down the dough to make genuine bagels, and not some glorified ring-shaped dinner rolls.

NYC has the street cred, but not the monopoly on raw talent. Austin lays claim to five independent, local bagel makers. Plenty of restaurants and cafes are doing great things with sandwiched and schmeared creations, but I wanted to go straight to the source for this gustatory investigation. I’m talking about hunting down the very best bagel in town.

How can you judge the best bagel?

While every cafe worth their coffee beans offers a basic bagel, I went straight to the source, examining only those who bake their own bagels. For the sake of consistency, I compared only everything bagels, being the most popular variety across the board, without any toppings. Prices ranged from $1 – 4.50 apiece, making the very best of the batch an affordable luxury. Each is filling enough to make a solid breakfast, even without adornment, so I’d call that a bargain for a full meal. Here’s where your dollars are best spent.

Who bakes the best bagels from scratch in Austin?

  • Rosen’s Bagels is a relative newcomer to the world of commercial baking, beginning life a mere five years ago, but has quickly taken hold as the front runner in local cafes and grocery stores. If it wasn’t enough to get a dozen delivered straight to your door, they now have two shiny new brick-and-mortar locations that are perpetually buzzing with hungry carbivores. Founder Tom Rosen has a simple formula for success, and is simply doing it right. The dough goes through a 48 hour fermenting and rising process to develop complex flavors, enhanced by the traditional addition of subtly sweet malt powder. Best of all, the everything bagels are double-seeded, tossed in the signature seasoning mixture on both sides to ensure no bald spots. Top and bottom halves are full coated for a serious flavor punch.

  • Rockstar Bagels has been rising to the occasion since 2009 with their malt-boiled bagels that positively shine in the early morning light. They’re the first local bagel to grace my table since they’re available at Wheatsville a la carte for mere pocket change. These plump rings sport an elegantly lacquered finish with a topping that tends to skew heavier on sesame seeds, enhancing the nutty, toasted flavor. Maybe that’s why I find them more compelling once split and toasted than simply warmed. Bulk bin grocery store bagels have questionable quality, even if they’re locally made, so always go to their walk-up window for the best, freshest batches.

  • Wholy Bagel stands apart from the pack by proudly touting their New Jersey-style bagel, boasting a notably fluffier crumb with a cracklingly crisp exterior. The combination of textures is unique, coming together as an a fully satisfying experience in a slightly unconventional format. Don’t forget that everything is bigger in Texas; when you order a dozen, it’s not a Baker’s Dozen but a Wholy Texas Dozen; 14 bagels for the price of 12.

  • Nervous Charlie’s can certainly be anxiety-provoking if you’re not prepared to wait on line. Perpetually swamped with hungry carbivores, it’s nigh impossible to beat the crowds. Most people are drawn to the loaded bagel sandwiches for a hearty breakfast, brunch, or lunch, but the ungarnished bread base itself is quite a prize. Plump, thick, and dense, each substantial ring demonstrates mastery of the dough.

  • Casper Fermentables adds more nuance to the local bagel conversation with their sourdough Montreal-style offerings. A passion for probiotics defines their offerings that run the gamut from kombucha to kimchi. Once a humble farmers market stand, Casper is the latest homegrown success to set up a permanent outpost in the Sunset Valley neighborhood. Now you can enjoy an expanded menu of ready to eat sandwiches and pastries, but the bagels remain the top seller. Even my New York-born father was impressed by the golden brown and mildly tangy, thoroughly chewy rings.

Honorable Mentions

Anyone baking their own bagels deserves props for doing it the right way, rather than the easy way. Not all of them rank at the top of my list, but they’re still far and away better than anything else you’d find on store shelves.

  • Big City Bagels and Subs tends to fly below the radar, putting more emphasis on the sandwiches than the bread, but the main issue is just getting there in time. Bagels are liable to sell out early, the shop sometimes closes early, and I can never seem to hit the road early enough.
  • Swedish Hill offers deluxe (albeit not vegan) fixings for dine-in guests, but the solo bagels are fairly forgettable. Not enough toppings to be considered everything; more like a few things. It doesn’t feel worth the price of entry to me.

New York may have perfected the art of the bagel, but it no longer has the monopoly. There are plenty of great bagels down south in the Greater Austin Area and beyond.