Breakfast at Brick Lane Beigel Bake

“Wanna meet for a bagel on Brick Lane? Big cultural experience.”

An innocent enough message before a night full of misunderstandings that might have gone differently had I overthought a bit less and just gone for the bagel plan. But j’avais la flemme [insert shoulder raise and pursed French lips sputtering to express general annoyance here]. Comically overdressed for every venue in East London and dangerously underdressed for the surprisingly chilly September evening, I had already killed 3 hours with the enomatic machine at Vagaband in boring-ass Monument, pulling my trench over slivers of crispily-tanned but now goosebumped skin not covered by my paper-thin black silk dress as a wine-lover acquaintance spoke at me words I didn’t even really hear. Something about Essex girls and bankers? I must have been such shit company that night. By the time this invitation came, my normally quite healthy hunger for late-night street-eats had been numbed by total disenchantment and apathy. I was over it, en mode “Fuck a bagel.” I think I even said those words out loud to my Uber driver who grunted back something in the affirmative. Anyway.

Getting a bagel (or beigel) on graffitied, painfully cool Brick Lane – whose historical significance as a melting pot formed by waves of immigration dates back centuries – is a big cultural experience indeed. And that’s why I went back there for breakfast the next day, my first stop on a long walk around East London. The aptly named lane of brick is also home to vintage shops, curry houses, a skateboard shop, record stores, breweries, tattoo parlours and a Banksy. It’s pretty rock ‘n’ roll.

There is actually not just one but two bagel shops on Brick Lane: the one with the white sign (Beigel Bake) and the one with the yellow sign (Beigel Shop) just four doors down. Apparently yellow is older, established by an Israeli immigrant named Jonny Cohen in the 1960’s, back when the neighborhood vibe was less oatmilk flat whites and vegan Italian-Korean fusion and more burly warehouses and factories. As the story goes, Jonny’s brother Asher followed Jonny to London to help him out in the baking biz and eventually established his own wholesale business in Jonny’s shop, which he rented during the week. Jonny got jealous and wanted his shop back, so Asher ended up moving out, buying an old butcher’s shop that became available down the street and founding Beigel Bake (white sign) in 1974 with his other two brothers, who had also been trained by Jonny. Jonny ended up selling his shop in 1987, and in 2002 it became known by its current name, the Beigel Shop (yellow sign). I feel kind of bad for this OG Jonny but well that’s capitalism for ya.

Since its founding in 1987, Beigel Bake has remained in the Cohen family, passing from Asher to his sons (Daniel and Nathan) and brothers after Asher’s death in 2018. The ever-present line out the door attests to the shop’s institutional status, as do the stories of the shop’s many celebrity guests, which have included Madonna, the Spice Girls, Mariah Carey and several royals. In that sense it’s kind of the Katz’s Deli or Ben’s Chili Bowl of London. But it’s bagels, which they spell “beigels” and pronounce “bye-gels,” apparently. It also has in common with these two the promise of late-night drunk eats, although Katz’s closes at 11pm, Ben’s at 4am and Beigel Bake just does not close. It’s open twenty-four-sev’. This translates to unruly crowds of shitfaced Brits at all hours in the night, standing in line for something cheap and comfortable to soothe their rowdy spirits. At 10am on a Sunday morning, the crowd was a bit calmer and quieter, the booze-fueled savaragery of the night before reduced into a kind of dazed, meek and harmless composure. Something tells me though that one day I’ll be back, a few beers in, to scratch that late-night itch.

Their menu seems like it hasn’t changed too much in the past few decades. They sell platzels, chollas, sausage rolls, some sweet pastries and beigels, which are cut, shaped, boiled and baked before they are sold, plain or sprinkled with poppy/sesame seeds. The folks in line are there for the bagel sandwiches, with smoked salmon and cheese please, with hummus and cucumber, with avocado or tuna and mayo, chopped herring, salami, peanut butter or nutella. But I only had eyes for one of their sandwiches, the salt beef with gherkins and mustard (a.k.a. corned beef with pickles and mustard).

What did I actually think of this beigel? Not bad. Look, as an American I have my own very concrete, well-established and quite inflexible perspective on bagels. And I’m aware that my own tastes do not reflect what’s cool, the dogma of bagel purists and bagel experts worldwide. I like my bagel toasted, fuck it, there, I said it. I don’t enjoy the chew. I’m intimidated by that clump of gluten landing heavy in my stomach, but giving the thing a tan and some crunch helps me psychologically accept its indigestibility. Toasting also activates the raw seeds with which the bagel may be encrusted, bringing their nutty flavors to the forefront. My ideal bagel is a sesame bagel, lightly toasted and smeared with cream cheese around 30 seconds after the thing comes out of the toaster, so that it’s just warm enough to melt the cheese slightly. If it’s a breakfast vibe, leave it like that. If it’s more of a lunch bagel, top it with lox and freshly cut chives. In the off-chance that I’m craving something sweet: a cinnamon bagel toasted and then immediately slathered with salted butter, so that the butter melts to form pools of salty here and there. That’s what I like.

This Beigel Bake beigel was untoasted. I was ­|-| this close to asking the woman behind the counter for a “light toast, if possible” but her been-up-all-night death glare made it quite obvious that that was just not going to happen for me today. As it was, in its untoasted state, this beigel was chewy but significantly fluffier, “bread-ier” and less dense than a NYC bagel. It was by no means brioche-y and maintained quite the bite, but required less jaw work than its untoasted, doughy cuz from across the pond. So I actually did not mind as much that it was untoasted, although I still would’ve preferred just an itty bitty crunch around the edges. The salt beef was great, steaming hot and succulent, sliced against the grain, barely perceptible bits of silken fat melting over otherwise super lean, deep pink meat. The salty meat was licked here and there by the heat of yellow mustard, which squirted down the sleeves of my coat, staining it forever, as I took my first bite. Worth it. Meanwhile, two slick pickles added their lip-puckering, gum-tickling tang. The beigel wrapped around all this jazz, soaking up the juices of meat, gherkin and mustard and providing a nice framework for the experience, something to hold on to. So yeah, pretty good. An untoasted NYC bagel would be way too tough a bracket for such a noble filling combo, it’s texture would overwhelm the moist, soft beef. But here it worked. It’s just a very different kind of bagel experience.

A beigel experience, I guess. A big cultural experience.

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