"Was it true? Had Florida really brought the water down from Brooklyn to make the bagels?"
When my mom and I moved down to South Florida from Manhattan, we brought everything with us but the kitchen sink—and food. That, we figured, they’d have down there. Once we arrived, we dumped all our boxes in the garage, sat down, famished, and contemplated dinner.
It was about an hour before we realized we’d left the only decent bagels, pizza, and Chinese take-out on the East Coast back in New York. Clearly, we hadn’t thought this thing through.
“It’s the water,” my father told me. “You can't get a New York bagel outside of New York because you can’t get New York water outside of New York.” And so began many years of longing. Longing for the crisp shell of a doughy bagel crusted in poppy seeds, coddling a creamy blanket of veggie cream cheese.
Every time I flew up to visit my dad in New York, he greeted me with a bagel. I would nearly faint with pleasure. I would return with two dozen bagels, one dozen bialys, and Chinese cold sesame noodles all stuffed into my overhead bin. The other passengers weren’t too pleased, but there was nothing I wouldn’t do to get my fill.
So when I saw a sign that read "Brooklyn Water Bagels" at the Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. while driving down the street in Delray Beach, I almost got into a car accident. I couldn’t believe it. Was it true? Had Florida really brought the water down from Brooklyn to make the bagels?
I parked my car, feeling strange that I was driving to get a New York bagel, and walked inside. I was immediately struck by Dodgers pennants and the echoes of a classic Brooklyn accent. I got in line, and ordered my poppy seed bagel with veggie cream cheese.
There it was.
That crisp, hearty outer shell that Ed once told me was the mark of a “serious” bagel. The doughy, airy, pocketed interior. The poppy seeds that jumped with a save-yourselves attitude from my bagel as I tore into it with my teeth. It was Dad at La Guardia Airport all over again. Except, I was in Florida. I needed to talk to the owner.
The Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Company opened only a few weeks ago and already, it’s overrun with people. As I sat talking to the owner, a man from Bensonhurst came up to me and told me he thought these bagels were “better than authentic—crispier, with that good taste.” He was unmistakably from Brooklyn. His wife informed me that he drove down with the family all the way from Wellington, at least 45 minutes away, just for the bagels. And he did it often. I nodded in complete comprehension.
Most bagels in Florida are what owner Steven Fassberg calls members of the “Einstein crew.” Those soft, chain-shop bagels, he explained, are like “a roll with a hole in the middle.” He continued, “just because something looks like a bagel, doesn’t mean it’s a bagel.” And he’s right. Buy a bagel in Florida, and you’ll immediately notice the softness. There’s no contrast of texture between the interior, and the exterior. They are not crispy. They are not “serious.”
Like so many New York transplants, the owners had heard the urban legend that “it’s all about the water.” So they tested the water across New York, and found that Brooklyn had the water they considered most conducive to excellent bagel production. (It’s no surprise that most of them are from Brooklyn.) They then broke it down, and created a patented fourteen-step process to reproduce it. Steven continued to educate me, explaining that a real water bagel has dough that is fifty percent water, and is then boiled. The Brooklyn Water Bagel Company uses over 600 gallons of Brooklyn water per day. You can’t import that from New York fast enough. So they replicated it.
In fact, the entire place is run entirely on this new Brooklyn water. You can sample the water in a shot glass from the cooler or buy a whole bottle of Brooklyn tap water for 99 cents (I’m not sure what my grandfather from Brooklyn would have had to say about that). They wash their vegetables in the stuff. The soda machines burp it out with syrup. Even their toilets flush Brooklyn water.
The bagels are phenomenal. Good even for New York; shocking down here. As another Brooklyn native told me, “They’re not lying. They’re great.” At 95 cents each, the bagels are a study in authenticity. They have all the usual flavors like plain and poppy and sesame and everything, but they also have those New York greats that we couldn’t even find bad versions of before: marble, egg, rye, bialys, flagels. And the cream cheese! The veggie cream cheese was smooth and thick, with a fine dice reminiscent of my favorite Sable’s on Second Avenue. The hand-sliced Nova wasn’t quite Zabar’s quality, but I was too far gone on bagels and cream cheese to really care. (They also had real black and white cookies.)
Some urban legends, it turns out, are true. The water makes the bagels. As does the fact that, besides the Brooklyn water, the owners and bakers follow the exact same bagel-making process of refrigeration and boiling and baking as occurred in Brooklyn in 1922:
The bagels are boiled in Brooklyn water...
and then baked in the oven.
But besides the quality of the bagel, what struck me was the atmosphere. Steven’s bright-eyed, wide-smiled father Ray manned the door, and the two of them, after two weeks, already seemed to know the name of every customer in the shop. Steven told me that many of his customers are New York transplants, but plenty were also native Floridians. There was a camaraderie there, a rediscovery of years spent up North, in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, eating bagels and hot dogs at prices I thought my father used to make up. Suddenly, everyone is a neighbor. I felt like I was with my family at Katz’s Deli, doing something that New Yorkers like us had been doing forever.
Steven told me, “It’s not about the success.” For him, it’s been most gratifying to see what this product has provided to people who missed it, and to those who never knew what they were missing.
But if you’re not in New York or Delray Beach, Florida, don’t worry. This company is looking to grow, with plans to open in airports and college campuses and, eventually, internationally. One model shows as many as 1,200 new stores in the next five years. And yes, they are looking into Brooklyn pizza. Thank God! I Heart NY.