Debating the authenticity of a food is always complicated: Who gets to decide what’s real, and what’s not? Is it about methods, ingredients, recipes or just the origins of the cook? Describe a dish as legit and prepare for the baggage of memory and expectation to weigh down your chances of satisfaction.
So it’s no wonder that the owners of Bullfrog Bagel and Call Your Mother, the city’s hottest bagel shops, won’t label what it is they make. Their bagels aren’t true New York style — those rounds that are chewy on the inside, golden on the outside and have become the American ideal. Nor do they taste like they come straight from Montreal, home to sweeter bagels cooked in a wood-burning oven.
“A Washington original.” That’s how Jeremiah Cohen, owner of Bullfrog Bagel — where the bagels are rolled by hand and the pastrami is cured for 12 days — describes his recipe, a product of tinkering in his home kitchen. Four years ago, Cohen recalls, he sold out of bagels in 15 minutes at his first pop up. Before long, he was being credited with bringing greater respect to D.C.’s bagel scene — once considered negligible, especially compared with New York’s. Now he’s selling to a long list of vendors and has three locations.
Sure, Bullfrog offers an asiago bagel, but the rest of the menu clings to the classics, with salmon and whitefish smoked in-house. Visit Bullfrog by Eastern Market on a weekend morning and you’ll encounter a line of patrons ordering self-serve coffee and unfussy sandwiches handed out with a loud shouting of your name. “I try to keep things so that they’re accessible to as many people as possible,” Cohen says.
Then there’s Call Your Mother, a Park View shop set to open this week with a bagel that founder Andrew Dana describes as “its own new breed.” The recipe borrows from both New York and Montreal, with a chewy interior, honey in the dough and the boiling liquid, and a bake in an oven fueled by Virginia white oak. The self-proclaimed “Jew-ish” deli from the team behind Timber Pizza, including chef Daniela Moreira, has been a hit at area farmers markets, where their 400 bagels usually sell out in an hour.
To understand the “ish” part, look no further than the schmears, which include bacon peanut butter, and the menu, with a bagel sandwich that pairs peach jam, bacon, japaleño and potato chips. The decor aims for a “Boca meets Brooklyn” look, meaning lots of bubble-gum pink and an entire wall dedicated to framed photos of the rapper Drake, who, like Dana, is a half Jew.
Yes, the shops are different. But before Call Your Mother came around, Bullfrog was often cited as being the city’s top bagel destination, famous for its long lines and reputation as a breakfast stop for those in-the-know. Now, with Call Your Mother generating lots of hype, the question is: Which serves the better bagel?
So that brings us to the logical next step: a taste test that doesn’t bother with legitimacy or categorization, but with the universal things that make a proper bagel — flavor, appearance and texture. I enlisted six colleagues to help me sample three varieties from each shop: plain, sesame and everything. Below, the results, rated from 1 (worst) to 5 (best).
Bullfrog’s sesame bagel was several tasters’ favorite. It wasn’t too huge (a good thing), and achieved the right balance of texture, color and coating of seeds. Compared with Call Your Mother’s golden-brown exterior and honeyed dough, however, most Bullfrog bagels appeared paler and less flavorful.
Bullfrog is a better bargain: Each bagel retails for $1.50, and a sandwich (egg and cheese) can be had for as little as $5.50. And while Call Your Mother’s menu and design may appeal more to the Instagram set, Bullfrog’s Eastern Market shop is the kind of place where you see sleepy parents with young children in tow, ordering a baker’s dozen to go.
The everything bagel lost points for its scarce toppings — a few tasters noted that some bites resembled a plain bagel — but overall Bullfrog’s rounds appealed to the eye: The center hole in each remained intact, and the exterior shined ever so slightly from what appeared to be a coating of egg wash.
Not that Cohen would ever tell me if it was indeed egg wash. Asked about his recipe, he would only say that he doesn’t use traditional bagel-shop equipment — his space is too small for that — and that his bagels aren’t vegan.
But as for other specifics, well, he’s probably already revealed too much.
“I can’t really tell you,” he says. “It’s like giving you the recipe for Coca-Cola.”
Overall average: 3.2.
317 Seventh St. SE; 1341 H St. NE; Tastemakers Food Hall, 2800 10th St. NE.
The sweetness comes through in Call Your Mother’s bagels, a flavor that nicely counters the subtle smokiness imbued by the wood oven. The combination lends a complexity that tasters enjoyed, particularly when paired with the generous toppings of the everything bagel, which benefited from its many dried onion bits and flecks of salt. (The za’atar version, which I recently sampled at the farmers market dolloped with salmon cream cheese, has quickly become my new favorite bagel.)
The abundance of seeds on the sesame bagel wasn’t as welcome: “It’s shedding like a nervous cat,” one taster noted.
There were also signs of an uneven oven — exterior blotches of light and dark — and some bagels, deep brown in hue, had an overbaked appearance. (I found out later that our tasting coincided with Call Your Mother’s first day baking out of its new oven. Perhaps as the new oven is calibrated, the bagels will even out in appearance.)
Still, Call Your Mother beat Bullfrog by about half a point overall, thanks to a good chew and moist crumb. That doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will favor the former: Which one you prefer may come down to your sweetness preference. Not only is Call Your Mother pricier — the shop charges $2.50 per bagel, and $8-$10 for elaborate sandwiches stacked with such ingredients as crispy shallots and cilantro — but also the honey turned off a taster or two.
There’s also the issue of supply and demand. Arriving at the farmers market only to find that the stand has sold out for the day is not a satisfying bagel experience. But Dana assures me those days are gone. Until recently, Call Your Mother was baking out of Timber Pizza. Now, with a proper kitchen, the farmers market stands can increase supply to 1,000 bagels per day.
As for the shop, Dana promises they’ll be making as many bagels as necessary. “No fear,” he says. “They’ll be coming hot and fresh all day and every day.”
Overall average: 3.6.
3301 Georgia Ave. NW. Also at the USDA, Silver Spring and Dupont Circle farmers markets.