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.

Closing Time, 2021

Saying goodbye is never easy, even if it’s a temporary parting of ways. Considering how often we practice, you’d think it gets easier, but the grief is still the same.

Today, as the sun sets for the final time in 2021, I’d like to honor the restaurants we’ve lost in Austin, Texas this year, as is annual tradition. It’s been another turbulent 12 months that has tested the will, spirit, and patience of everyone, especially those in the service industry. Those “essential workers” that kept food on our tables sometimes ended up with empty plates themselves. Before we look ahead towards better days, we must look back to honor their memory, and not let their demise befall others still with us, hanging on by a thread.

Barrio Verde did not go gentle into that good night, fighting to overcome the devastating winter storm that ravaged businesses across the state. Surviving without power or water is hard enough as an individual, but for a business with perishable assets in limbo, revenue literally rotted on site. Though out of commission indefinitely, this won’t be their last stand. New ideas are in the works as we speak, so hopefully 2022 will see the return of those marvelous elotes and so much more.

Bruja’s Brew announced a temporarily closure during spring break, but never reopened again. The trailer is gone, but the booch lives on, now pouring at a select few restaurants and bars around town. Word is that it may one day be available in cans, but nothing will compare to the magic of getting an icy glass on a hot day, edible glitter sparkling in the sun.

Lo Pan’s Kitchen made a big splash onto the scene as the only 100% vegan source for Chinese American takeout staples. Sadly, they burned out just as fast. After two moves in just five months, the woks came off the fire for the last time. Rumor has it that the trailer has been repurposed as another Plow Burger outpost up north in Denton, TX. Occasionally, you can still catch a few of these comfort food classics as specials on the Brunch Bird menu, though like the source itself, they’re always gone in a flash.

Mission Street Burrito stepped up to the plate in a town known for tacos, delivering tortilla torpedoes as big as your head and nacho boxes that seemed to be bottomless. No one else could wrap up a mega meal like this, loaded with all the plant-based meats and cheeses you could crave. Disappearing in mid-June, social media accounts claim that the trailer is hibernating, but at this point, there are no signs the beast will ever awaken.

The Abundant Vegan was with us so briefly that it seemed almost like a waking dream. They weren’t even established long enough to set up an official website of their own. Serving traditional Mexican plates on East Caesar Chavez for less than a month, all that’s left now is a vacant trailer and a litany of unanswered questions.

Bone-a-fide Vegan isn’t totally gone, per say, but pivoted in September to become Theano Vegan, switching from southern BBQ to Greek delicacies. As a radical departure from their original menu, their soulful smoky pulled jackfruit and plant-based brisket will surely be missed.

Even though these poor souls have turned out the lights and locked up for the last time, tomorrow is a new day. New, brave chefs are stepping up to the plate, even in the midst of such uncertainty and unrest. An incredible number of fresh faces have clocked in already, launching new eateries all throughout the pandemic, despite the odds. To a brighter, better, and more delicious future, cheers to you. Let’s make the new year a time for all of us to thrive, together.

Ode to Avocados

Prized as a delicacy and an aphrodisiac, avocados have been cherished since the early Aztecs first harvested the wild fruit over 10,000 years ago. While that’s an impressive history, proving its long term staying power, I’m disquieted to imagine any point in time that this most precious, indispensable stable didn’t exist. Rarely does a day pass without some form of avocado appearing on my personal menu, and often more than once. I hate to play favorites when there are so many incredible fresh finds out there… But I know avocado is the one I couldn’t live without.

Once the underdog of the produce world, avocados have enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity only during the later half of the 20st century. Now ubiquitous, Americans alone account for over $2.6 billion in avocado sales annually. No wonder millennials can’t afford to buy houses anymore. The buttery flesh may be green, but its really worth it’s weight in gold.

As National Avocado Day looms ever nearer on July 31st, the whole event seems curiously redundant. Don’t we already pay our respects at the shrine of the ahuacatl more religiously than most conventional deities? I don’t really need to suggest a celebratory round of guacamole, as if it wasn’t the most obvious serving suggestion in the book? Besides, you have a whole separate holiday to rock out with your guac out, on September 16th.

There’s no wrong way to eat an avocado. In fact, my favorite method is to scoop it right out of of shell with a spoon, gilded with tiny pinch of flaky salt over the top. If you’d like to pull out all the stops for this party and try something special, however, I do have a few more ideas that are sure to make any avocado lover swoon.

Continue reading “Ode to Avocados”

The Great Shake Down

What makes a truly great milkshake?

Greedily drinking down my umpteenth test subject, I must ask myself this vital question. Why is this one superlative, crave-worthy at all times, while an equally priced, similarly composed competitor is more like a nuclear meltdown in a cup? With that, my quest to find the very best that Austin has to offer began in earnest.

Flavor, of course, is essential, though highly subjective. Judging objectively, it all comes down to texture, which encompasses a number of factors:

Viscosity– Thick enough to drink through a straw without great duress, just shy of being able to turn the cup upside-down without incident, but with more body and heft than a protein shake.

Smoothness– This is no place for gritty powders, but more importantly, errant chunks of unblended ingredients or coarse ice cubes should be considered a crime. There’s no excuse for that kind of neglectful prep work.

Temperature– If it’s not icy-cold, there’s something wrong. Though rich and indulgent, it should still be refreshing enough to take the edge off a sweltering summer day.

Ingredients– As with the components for any other recipe, quality counts. This is where I need to get a bit granular and disqualify anything that uses bananas as a base. Sorry kids, that’s a smoothie, not a milkshake.

First up, the reigning champ should surprise no one: Milky Way Shakes has it right in their name, after all. The only thing on the menu here are frosty blended beverages, with options for both the mild and wild of disposition. Taking inspiration from galactic sources, your kicked up classics are the Chocolate or Vanilla Eclipse, which both come adorned with a dark chocolate crescent moon, adorned with almonds and edible glitter. While I personally default to the Oreo Borealis which hits that sweet mint-chip spot thanks to homemade peppermint syrup, coarsely crushed sandwich cookies, and the critical garnish of star-shaped food-grade confetti, the seasonal specials are out of this world. In the frigid days of winter, it would be worth the chill to snag the North Star, a rich and creamy eggnog blend that’s topped with a genuine meringue snowperson. These nondairy masters go above and beyond the average options, while still churning out pitch-perfect nostalgic treats. You definitely don’t need to be vegan to appreciate the artistry and bold flavors happening in this tiny trailer.

On the same level of handcrafted indulgence, Sweet Ritual is a full vegan scoop shop preparing unique ice cream concoctions from scratch. The challenge for each visit is deciding whether you can forgo the decadent sundaes, cookie sandwiches, straight-up pints, or, of course, milkshakes. Unlike most parlors, opting to drink your calories is not a sad sacrifice here, where you get all the goodness of their bestsellers in semi-liquid form. Their signature coconut and soy soft serve can accommodate any flavor requests, though the Coffee Shake made with cold brew and crowned with a beguiling swirl of vanilla soft serve “whipped cream” is a top request, for obvious reasons. Nothing beats the bright, bold, and pure refreshing properties of the simple Mint Shake, though. No chips need apply to keep me coming back for more; thick and creamy, melting slowly even on a steamy sun-drenched afternoon, it satisfies my thirst and sweet tooth all in one luscious slurp.

Known for their coconut-based pints found in freezers nationwide, Nada Moo is rooted here in beautiful Austin where they can flex their creativity for us locals. Serving up more than the supermarket hard-packed products, your best bet is the DIY shake option, giving you full control over your particular mix-in masterpiece. The option of swirling your scoops with cereal milk is a standout offering that’s worth sipping at least once, but don’t let that dissuade you from going with a ribbon of chocolate or caramel sauce, applied to coat the inside of the cup like a luxurious lace blanket. For more hardcore cravings, though, you can never go wrong with the Death by Chocolate shake, which is every bit as dark and devilishly fudgy as it sounds.

Departing from the conventional custard creations, TLV blends an entirely unique base of 100% pure sesame tahini, date molasses, and almond milk into distinctly nutty, buttery shakes. It’s an unlikely foundation that proves unshakably strong in the face of any comparable rivals. Disqualifying the banana option for reasons outlined above, it’s delightful served up as is, or embellished to make a Chocolate or Cardamom-Turkish Coffee Tahini Shake. There’s truly no better accompaniment to a meal of crispy, freshly fried falafel or mushroom shawarma. Move over, French fries; the be-pita sandwich and tahini shake are the new power couple on the block.

Brand new on the scene, Project Pollo has finally launched their much-awaited oat milk shakes just this past weekend. Being that I rushed out first thing to get my fix, they deserve a bit of slack while still hammering out the fine details. While enjoyable, my inaugural Double Chocolate Shake did fall a bit short of expectations. More like vanilla soft serve with chocolate syrup, it was certainly thick, but not exactly drinkable, and quite pale compared to the advertised images. Also available in Strawberry Shortcake flavor which promises real strawberries and crumbled sugar cookies, I’ll check that one out next time, perhaps after a longer trial period. At least when you snag an order of loaded fries on the side, you won’t walk away disappointed.

When you find yourself at Next Level Burger, there are no two ways about it: You must order a “next level” milkshake, or be sorely disappointed by the “classic” flavors. The basics are one-note, bland, and too sweet, trying to compensate by adding more sugary syrup. Go big or go home with the Cookie Shake, however, and you’ll be rewarded with a cool contender blended with its namesake, topped with extra crumbles and chocolate syrup. The real trick is to ask for chocolate chips as well, for the best textural and most flavorful experience. Take your pick from a soy or coconut base, though I’ve tasted no discernible difference between the two. You can now get the same drinkable desserts through their ghost kitchen sister establishment, Next Level Clucker, too.

A trip to The Yard Milkshake Bar is not a journey to be taken lightly. By placing your order, you’re making a commitment to face down a frosty behemoth; there is no such thing as a small size, only big, bigger, and biggest, with “toppings” well exceeding the confines of the commemorative keepsake glass. The NOT MILK? is the sole vegan option, but even that will leave the most hedonistic glutton for punishment craving more. Chocolate soy milk blends with oat milk chocolate chunk ice cream, topped by either almond or coconut whip and crushed cookies. Vanilla icing acts as the edible spackling paste gluing more cookie pieces to the exterior, and thick rivulets of chocolate syrup stripe across the whole thing. Don’t forget the full-sized soft chocolate chip cookie that’s nearly hidden in that thicket of garnishes. If that sounds like a situation, you’re not wrong. Full embracing your milkshake and all the mess that comes with it is part of the experience. Fully prepared for this inevitability, each shop is equipped with an extra-large bucket sink to wash off your glass- and self- before slowly waddling home. It’s outrageous, it’s over the top, and it’s a must for anyone that wants a truly memorable milkshake.

To close out this roundup, I must offer an honorable mention to the Birthday Cake Smoothie at Nekter Juice Bar. Yes, we do have bananas here, but by some strange alchemy, you’d never know it from the taste. The flavor is that of unadulterated, unmistakable layer cake, frosting and all. Better yet, it’s tinted a festive blue hue thanks to the natural color granted by spirulina, and topped by pastel sprinkles. Don’t forget to request plant-based protein though, since whey is the default option.

Who makes the best milkshake on your block? Though you could easily hold that title yourself, what makes it such an illustrious treat is the luxury of having someone else make it for you. Everything tastes better when you don’t have to do the heavy lifting, or in this case, arduous blending, especially when you get genuine chefs and ice cream experts on call.