For every bagel lover there is a different definition of the perfect bagel. Color, texture, weight, size and, of course, flavour are debated amongst connoisseurs. Even its spelling — take a walk down Brick Lane in London for a great beigel experience — its origin, which contrary to certain claims is not New York city but the city of Kraków, circa 1600s, and its religion, if you can believe it, has been contested. In this day-in-age, however, of bad spelling, dubious origins, and superfluous religion, there is perhaps only one thing that can be said without question about bagels: they boil over in expat communities.
Expatperu forum: “Does anyone know where to get a bagel?” Shanghai expat blog: “Kids love to eat bagels”. Buenos Aires expat.org: “Update on bagels”. Panamá, Cambodia, Romania, Auckland, on and on it goes. And it’s not just Americans who need bagels as a reality touchstone wherever they are in the world; it has become, it seems, the choice of dough for international people of most nationalities.
In Quito there are two ways to come by a bagel. One could take a stroll to the almost cosmopolitan neighborhood of República del Salvador and wonder into Mr. Bagel on Portugal y República. The other choice, if your perfect bagel requires pajamas, is to pick up a bag of The Bagel Connection bagels in just about any Supermaxi in town. For those who have yet to get their Ecua bagel facts straight, here is a round guide with a hole in the middle.
Mr. Bagel: Mr. Hugh Gillis, more like, is the man responsible for Quito’s first bagel shop. His exemplary story of a foreigner mounting a successful business in the middle of the world began in the 80s, when he got off a plane as a Peace Corps volunteer. After figuring out how to make a bagel, which didn’t come easy for the civil engineer, Gillis took his kitchen experiments to a little shop he named Mr. Bagel. Twenty years later, his bakery is selling out every afternoon, and a branch that’s been open for the last five years in the Mariscal (Cordero y Tamayo) does pretty well, too.
The Mr. Bagel experience is not just about the dough, — to which we’ll get to in the next paragraph, if you must scroll — but about a place for foreigners and locals to chill out, American-style. There is a book exchange inside the coffee shop inviting its customers to take an Ecuadorian minute to peruse through old editions of foreign consumer magazines, among other reading materials. Weekend breakfasts are a favourite amongst the clientele, and during the week a lunch bagel on the go topped with humus, salmon, or a herbie cream cheese might just be what you were missing.
From plain to everything flavour, passing through classics like cinnamon raisin and Ecua-fusion ají flavour, Mr. Bagel provides a wide variety of choices. This bread is heavy and of good size, enough for one to satisfy the average muncher, though few people can resist taking a couple more for later. Its crust follows the New York Times‘ definition of a good bagel: “should make a slight cracking sound when you bite into it instead of a whoosh.” All in all, Mr. Bagel delivers a product that keeps the bagel craving at ease. Now, there has been one, maybe two New Yorkers in Quito who, at the time, felt these bagels were not quite what they would have wanted.
This here is the hole in the middle (use your imagination, I don’t have the skills to make this text hole-shape), which in terms of the bagel market in Ecuador is sort of off-centre. Cuenca. The growing number of Americans who have made this quaint southern city their retirement home are probably reading this with watering mouths and nowhere to satisfy their bagel needs — or so I’m told. Dear Americuencos, we send our deepest sympathies and encourage you to select an entrepreneur to come negotiate a franchise.
Susan Stern, self-announced New Yorker, began her bagel business in Quito soon after Mr. Bagel opened in 1995. Since she was already into business with Supermaxi, selling American-style cakes, as she describes her carrot and zucchini loafs, she was able to supply the supermarket giant with the staple American bread. She developed her own recipe with the help of relatives who used to make bagels back home.
The Bagel Connection offers four kinds of bagels: plain, sesame, wholewheat and onion. A word of warning; if you’re too impatient to properly cook this bagel, you will definitely bite into a whoosh. In fact, be prepared to put some effort if you want the kind of golden bagel you had in mind, as these bake goods are sold dough color. As for the size and weight, they are slightly lighter and fluffier than Mr. Bagel’s, but just as big. Quite good with smushed avocado on top.
Finally, if what you are looking for is a coffee shop with gargantuan mugs of unbelievably good coffee, a large menu of everything bagel, a friendly international crowd, set in the middle of a gorgeous neighborhood, do please book a ticket to Guatemala. Antigua’s Bagel Barn is where it’s at.