The bagel is toast. Or has been, until recently, when a new generation has begun walking the bagel back from terminal bloat. On the artisan end of the revival continuum: the East Bay's Beauty's Bagel Shop (makers of Montreal-style boiled, wood-fire baked bagels), which is gearing up for a retail location, reportedly in Oakland. At the higher-volume end is Spot Bagel, a strictly wholesale company based in Burlingame that began rolling out product last month. Saul's Restaurant and Delicatessen began offering them in Berkeley early last week, followed by both Berkeley Bowl stores.
Unlike the bready megabagels perfected by Noah's (a company the nation has Berkeley to blame for), Spot's are smaller, denser, and chewier, more like traditional New York bagels. Spot boils its bagels (large-scale operators use steam) in batches of 58, no less, before finishing them in the oven.
Even though Spot owner Jay Glass has been careful to forge a connection to old-borough bagel-making, he's also trying to position Spot as something new. Glass: "I thought, Why isn't anyone doing an organic bagel in California, applied some creativity and applied panache — what, say, Humphry Slocombe does to ice cream, or Alice Waters to that Slow Food, farm-to-table philosophy?"
I dropped in on Saul's last week to check out Spot's plain (called Yosemite, for the Hetch Hetchy water they contain) and Sesamimi bagels ($1.50 each). The plain had a tight, cream-colored crumb and a complex, well-developed flavor, the sesame even more so, thanks to a trace of sesame oil in the dough and a sprinkling of black seeds in the mix on top. Did it have too much flavor? Maybe. Then again, like most Americans west of the Hudson River, I'm used to bagels that taste like factory French rolls.
Then, last weekend, I went back to Saul's to score bagels from Beauty's Bagel Shop. It's not actually a shop (not yet, anyway) but a moonlight startup by Pizzeria Delfina cook Blake Joffe and Addie's Pizza Pie server Amy Remsen. Joffe and Remsen are making hand-rolled, boiled, and wood-oven-baked bagels in the tradition of Montreal's St.-Viateur, in the Addie's kitchen. Joffe and Remsen make Saturday-only deliveries to Saul's and the San Francisco deli popup Wise Sons, at the Beast and the Hare restaurant.
To make a fair comparison with Spot, I stuck to Beauty's plain and sesame bagels ($1.15 each), but there was no comparison. Beauty's were, well — beauties. I loved the plain bagels' sheen, loved the crust's char, loved their dense yet open crumb. They had flavor, even apart from the ghost of smoke in the crust, with an earthy sweetness like browned popcorn kernels.
Until Joffe and Remsen open their own shop, plan to haunt Saul's on Saturday mornings, followed by the Cheeseboard, for cream cheese. At least I'll only have to park once.
As Oakland struggles to allow street food in neighborhoods not called Fruitvale, a new mobile-food events producer has rolled into town.
OMFG in this context isn't the chatspeak exclamation you deploy on Twitter after a Justin Bieber sighting, but an acronym for Oakland Mobile Food Group, Elizabeth August's loose alliance of vendors either based in or who sell regularly in Oakland. August is also a vendor (Guerrilla Grub) who's worked on organizing food vendors at Art Murmur. At first she agreed to help Karen Hester promote Bites on (now off) Broadway, and use it to build support for reforming Oakland's mobile vending ordinance, but withdrew when it became clear the Friday night Temescal food pod near Oakland Tech was moving forward without the consent of the city or the school district.
August originally planned OMFG as a vendor collective, but that didn't happen — she says summer was a terrible time to try to enlist vendor support, and vows to try again this winter. At the moment, it seems to have a broader mission.
"The OFMG is a collaborative effort of Oakland mobile-food vendors coming together for a variety of reasons," explained August, who described herself as OMFG's manager, organizing events and sweating the details.
Last month August organized a regular Thursday OMFG lunch in Jack London at the corner of Fourth and Washington, at the invitation of the landlord — it features two rotating vendors every week (OFMG members include Go Streatery, Fist of Flour, The Grilled Cheese Guy, El TacoBike, Butterfat Bakery, Sue's Sassy Pies, and 51st State). And August is behind a short series of Saturday-only mobile vending food pods at the historic 16th Street train station in West Oakland, through October.
As for changing Oakland's street-food laws, August sees OMFG as a sort of advocacy group, collaborating with Shelly Garza of La Placita, the East Oakland mobile-vending consulting firm. August says they'll work together to draft reform proposals to present to the Oakland Food Policy Council's mobile food-vending task force, Planning and Zoning, and the Community and Economic Development Agency.
"We want to show the city, this is what we want to do," August said. "We have all our ducks in a row, now you just figure out how we can do it."
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