With the proliferation of Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks throughout New York City, it's heartening when a bagel shop opens. So when Christopher Pugliese had a sign by "Mosaic Man" Jim Power affixed outside his new shop across from Tompkins Square Park and opened up last December, it was a moment for East Villagers to celebrate. After all, the best bagels nearby were what, Ess-A-Bagel, David's, and Bagel Boss up past 14th Street on 1st Avenue, or Bagel Bob's on University Place? Still, new doesn't always mean good. How does the newcomer stack up against the stalwarts? There was only one way to find out: taste a variety of bagels at Tompkins Square Bagels, then take one bagel and test it against the same kind at nearby bagel barons.
Tompkins Square Bagels looks like it's been there forever. The sign resonates with the tiles that Jim Power has been affixing to lampposts since the 80's. Then there's the warm light inside, wood, and an open kitchen, which all contribute to a familiar setting. It feels lived-in enough that during a recent visit, a transplant to the neighborhood was shocked to discover it had only been open a few months.
Pugliese is no bagel neophyte — he's an owner of Court Street Bagels in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn (along with South Brooklyn Pizza and Forcella, an example of the trend of Brooklyn spots invading Manhattan). You get the sense he believes in doing things the right way: old-school (according to Tompkins Square Bagel's site, Neil Young and rap artists on vinyl pre-1986 are invited to eat for free... old-school indeed).
Tompkins Square Bagels is at 165 Avenue A and E 10th Street.
Pugliese is a New Yorker (from Gravesend, Brooklyn, home of the famed Brennan & Carr Gargiulo). As Daniel Maurer recently noted, Pugliese was inspired by Bake City's Bagels in Gravesend where he worked as a kid, and also by former New York Times restaurant critic Marian Burros, who in 1994 lamented the gradual inflation of the bagel from its rare 2- to 3-ounce original incarnation (most bagels have been turned into bready monsters that can be made into sandwiches).
"I want to do it the old way, the way we did it way out in Brooklyn in the 80's when I was a kid," Pugliese explained in a recent interview. "It's a little bit different than the way things are done now, but I think people are going to like it." (Bagels Return To The Lower East Side from Shawn Chittle on Vimeo)
That involved using a kettle to boil the bagels (which most people tried to dissuade him from doing — often these days, bagels are steamed instead before being baked). It also meant hunting down the right oven, "Cutler is the original bagel oven, a lot of people believe it's the only oven to use if you want to get a good bagel." Pugliese found his Cutler oven in Florida and had it shipped back up to New York City.
An assortment of bagels from Tompkins Square Bagels.
So how are the bagels? Pretty damn good. Plain, pumpernickel, sesame, and everything bagels that were fresh, but no longer warm, all had good give. They weren't bready and thick, and there was an appropriate crust — hard enough without making you pull a tooth when you bite in.