“Bagels in L.A. suck,” according to Zach Liporace, owner and operator of the West Side pop-up Pop’s Bagels. And he’s not the only bagel expert or vocal New York ex-pat who feels that way. In the parlance of bagel criticism, all the city’s bagel woes originate with the local water source. Non-New York water leads to bland “rolls with holes,” not delicious bagels. And the finished product bears all the hallmarks of food prepared in the absence of “Jewish soul,” Liporace said when we talked about the recent artisanal bagel boom in his adopted city.

Whether accurate or hyperbolic, these are descriptions of what bagels in the city used to be. Today, shops like Pop’s, Maury’s Bagels, and Courage Bagels have moved past trying to recreate New York bagels (like the shops hawking bagels boiled in “Brooklynized water”) and brought what Jason Kaplan of Maury’s Bagels describes as “bread-baking techniques to bagel baking.” The result? Artisanal, fresh, superb bagels.

These shops—all of which are owned and operated by transplant Angelenos—prize wild yeast, local ingredients, and the unique character of breads made using traditional methods. They are all devoted to establishing a new bagel paradigm that is decidedly, unapologetically L.A., “the city known to provide its creatives permission to do things differently,” Christadore Moss of Courage Bagels told me. In the process they’ve allowed one of the pillars of Jewish cuisine to adapt, as all Jewish food has, to the ingredients and culture of its local environment.

As L.A. native and food blogger Kaitlin Orr cheered in a recent Instagram post: “Real bagels have finally made their way to the West Coast!”

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Liporace runs his pop-up and catering businesses in Culver City, near the longstanding Jewish neighborhoods of Fairfax and Pico-Roberston. He began Pop’s—named for his grandfather, who introduced him to great bagels during visits to the Upper East Side of Manhattan—in 2018 with a simple mission: bring a homemade, freshly baked, and warm bagel to Los Angeles.

To Liporace, a native of Palm Beach and Boca Raton, Florida, the typical bagel in L.A. lacked the distinctive malt flavor that he’d grown to love as a kid while visiting New York. Perhaps the larger issue was that flavor in general seemed to have been lost somewhere between the East and West coasts. Thinking that it couldn’t be that difficult to make a bagel, he found a recipe online and baked a batch.

“They came out terrible,” he said. Because, of course, there’s a lot more to a bagel—and to any “soulful” cooking—than mechanically following the steps of some recipe. This is especially true for breads, for which the composition of flours, local water, and temperature during the proofing process can have drastic effects on a dough.

After much experimentation, Liporace perfected three flavors—plain, everything, and cinnamon raisin—that he sells both as a caterer (true to L.A. form, much of his business comes from people who aren’t Jewish but still love bagels) and weekend pop-ups in the West Side neighborhoods of Culver City and Brentwood. His bagels are billowy, more like the usual L.A. or Western-style bagel, but are lightened by just enough air to avoid the troublesome denseness that afflicts so many of the city’s bagels. Uniquely, Pop’s bagels are always served fresh out of a countertop oven not much bigger than a microwave. The bagels are so fresh, in fact, that only a handful of bagels can be prepared at a time; after waiting in line and ordering, you might have to wait up to 15 minutes for your bagels to be warmed, sliced, and spread with Liporace’s revelatory contribution to bageldom: homemade cream cheese.

Unlike the tubbed stuff, this cream cheese is smooth but not gummy; it’s tangy and full of character; it’s soft and somewhat delicate. Atop a warm, sliced bagel, it delightfully begins to seep into the long strands or dough and air pockets that are the mark of a great bagel. “I’m not going to spend all this time making a bagel from scratch and top it with”—Liporace said with a laugh—“Philadelphia cream cheese.”

Liporace’s work has won over critics: Orr posted on Instagram that Pop’s bagels are “without a doubt, the best bagels I’ve found outside of New York.”

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Jason Kaplan, who’s from Maryland but has been in L.A. for a couple of decades, started Maury’s Bagels in 2014. He had “an idea in his head” of what a great bagel should be—an idea formed from childhood memories of chewy, flavorful bagels his family would pack for him to take to school and eat for lunch. But he couldn’t find even a close approximation of such a bagel in his neighborhood of Silver Lake, or anywhere in the city.

“Silver Lake was underserved,” Kaplan said. “Bagels in L.A. and elsewhere had become, basically, bagel-shaped bread.” What was missing, he said, was a “very chewy, slightly crispy, delicious bagel that tasted good on its own, before you covered it in whatever you’re used to covering it with.”

Silver Lake was the perfect place to start a bagel shop that served what Kaplan intended to be “the best version of the original.” In order to do that, he’d need to make the bagels he “wanted to eat.”

He began by experimenting with wild fermentation in his apartment’s kitchen. Determined to work with what was around him, a quality widespread in the L.A. food scene, Kaplan harvested wild yeast by setting out a mixture of local flour and water and allowing it to mingle with “bacteria and fungi in the local air.” This method of creating a starter dough—the foundation of every bagel he’s ever made—is a traditional way to cultivate a base that adds depths of flavor and uniqueness to breads, including bagels.

After a few years of “editing” the recipe, Kaplan finally landed on the bagel you can now enjoy any morning at his Bellevue Avenue brick-and-mortar shop, which opened in March. Throughout the day you can stand half a block away and smell the intoxicating aroma of bagels baking. And, because this is L.A., you can have your bagel however you like it: toasted, for instance (you won’t be scorned for asking), and topped with cream cheese and lox. Or you can opt for something less traditional but nonetheless delightful, such as the decidedly Israeli-influenced za’atar bagel, which can be ordered topped with labneh, tomato, and cucumber. Bagels can also be topped with avocado, cream cheese, tomatillo, radish, and red onion—about as L.A. as a bagel can be, unless the cream cheese was vegan (an option, of course). Maury’s also serves freshly made espresso, cold brew, and iced mugicha alongside Topo Chico and Harmless Harvest coconut water. Though not the drinks you might find in your Lower East Side appetizing shop, sometimes a sparkling water from Mexico is really what you want on a hot L.A. day.

Customers—especially those from back east—appreciate what Maury’s has brought to the city. Sitting on a bench outside the shop on a recent Sunday morning, L.A. residents Julia Fruithandler (originally from Connecticut) and Jake Close (from Boston), offered praise. Fruithandler described Maury’s as “a trendy take on a classic bagel,” adding: “I’m used to old shops on Long Island, and this isn’t that.” Close concurred, noting that the bagel was “really fresh and chewy—with a nice crunch.”

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A mile northwest of Maury’s, business and life partners Arielle Skye, originally from Saginaw, Michigan, and Christadore Moss, who lived most of his life in New York City, are preparing to open Courage Bagels’ first storefront in Virgil Village, an up-and-coming neighborhood that borders Silver Lake and is also the home of Sqirl, one of L.A.’s defining restaurants.

Skye’s venture into bageldom began in 2017, after she departed a dead-end job in marketing/photography and decided, age 24, that she “wanted to use [her] hands and make stuff.” She wasn’t sure how, or to what end, she’d pursue a craft until she recalled reading about Montreal bagels on the Bleubird blog and decided to try making them herself.

Fortuitously, her partner, Moss, had spent much of the early to mid-1990s working in the food industry. During that time he encountered L.A. bread makers such as La Brea Bakery’s Nancy Silverton, who relied on and popularized slow, traditional old-world methods of making bread, such as cultivating wild yeasts using grape skin. It hadn’t occurred to him, however, that bagels could (or should) also be made using traditional methods until Skye began researching the history of bagels and bialys as she worked to perfect her own recipe.

The couple dipped into the traditional craft of bread making as they developed their “dream bagel”: a local, organic, and wild-fermented bread that “isn’t junk food.” Their bagels were inspired by Montreal’s but quickly morphed into what Moss describes as a “thinner, crispier, more charred, and not billowy bagel that resembled what was being baked in Eastern Europe a hundred, or a hundred-fifty years ago” more than a traditional Montreal or New York bagel. The couple uncovered documentary and textual artifacts that helped them imagine how bagels and bialys would have been made in Eastern European cities like Bialystok, and how they might continue the traditions of that craft.

Throughout the monthslong period of experimentation, Skye loaded freshly baked bagels into a basket suspended above the back wheel of her bike, courier-style, and rode from a few miles east of Silver Lake to downtown, yelling, “Bagels!” to passersby.

True to her growing fascination with the history of bagels and bialys, her rides echoed street vending in Bialystok before WWII. In The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, Skye read how Jews were denied permits to sell their bagels or bialys on the streets, so parents would sell while kids staked out corners and helped their parents avoid police.

As the book “discusses early bagel peddling in Eastern Europe,” Skye said—“reminiscent of L.A. today, really”—she read the line that gave her endeavor its name: “A bagel represented courage.”

As they expanded to selling at farmers markets and coffee shops, Courage topped bagels with cream cheese or butter and local ingredients: tomatoes, avocados, lemon and figs, cucumber and parsley. When they needed a touch of luxury, they sourced caviar farmed by the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservancy because of concerns about the ecological and environmental impacts of importing from distant Russia.

Their brick-and-mortar shop—which they’re renovating and designing themselves—is set to open early next year.

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No longer confined to creating facsimiles of New York’s, L.A.’s new bagel bakers have set the parameters for the new bagel paradigm. Only in L.A. can a Montreal-style bagel or Bialystok-inspired bialy topped with za’atar and olive oil be as popular as a cinnamon raisin with vegan cream cheese or an everything with whitefish salad.

All of these new bagels shops serve “their idea of what a good bagel is,” as Kaplan told me. Courage reenvisions the wide and flat hand-rolled bagels you’ll still find at Montreal’s St-Viateur and Fairmount as rustic, occasionally charred “honest breads” topped with local and seasonal farmers market ingredients. Maury’s reimagines the New York bagel as an artisanal bread you enjoy in a neighborhood gathering spot, and Pop’s wanted to bring the same level of craftsmanship to various locations on the other side of town, serving the freshest bagels possible with the best cream cheese.

“Everyone seems to be doing something cool and different from each other,” Skye said, “which gives the community a lot of fun choices.”

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