Blame it on two trips to New Jersey since the turn of the year. I've a craving for bagels that has been hard to satisfy.

Not the jumbo, dense and chewy, shiny-crusted and inexpensive (generally 35 to 50 cents each) orbs so prevalent back East; they're unavailable here. No, I'm talking about the vastly improved Northwest-style bagel - a lighter-textured snack that's somewhere between a bagel and a soft roll.

There still are only a handful of local purveyors, and their bagels range from passable to primo. To fulfill my hankering, I tasted my way through five bagel shops from Knappa to Cannon Beach. Here's my report with ratings ranging from 1 to 4 bagels.

Ben's Bagel And Pizza, 42915 Old Highway 30, at the Knappa crossroads; (503) 458-6938; Rating: Three bagelsIn the East, bagels and pizza under one roof would cause a cultural clash, but the concept seems to work in tiny Knappa. Owner Ben Owen, who formerly operated out of downtown Astoria, has won a following of loggers, farmers, fisher folk and east-county commuters who dash into his plain-looking place of business for an early-morning bagel (65 cents each) or an after-work pizza. In addition to his two mainstay offerings, Owen also bakes sweet treats such as Danishes, cinnamon crisps, occasional breads, even cream pies.

But the main draw at Ben's still is an assortment of bagels that taste even more substantial than they look. Yeasty with a chewy texture and a crusty sheen, these donutlike concoctions epitomize simple, and generally healthy, fast food. Owen's everyday assortment - all crafted with high-gluten flour, then boiled and baked as bagels should be - includes plain, poppyseed, sesame, raisin, onion, garlic, cheddar, nine-grain and a jalapeno version that might make a traditional Jewish bagel baker blanch.

Available occasionally are flavors such as honey-hazelnut, pumpkin, cranberry-nut, oat bran and two of my favorites, pumpernickel and tomato-Parmesan. Arrive at Ben's early enough and grab the best bagel imaginable - one still warm and aromatic from the oven.

Costco Wholesale, 180 S.E. Neptune Ave., Warrenton; (503) 861-1948; Rating: Two bagelsFor $3.49, take home a bag of a dozen Kirkland Signature bagels, which is the only way they're sold here. Produced under an agreement with Noah's New York Bagels (a California chain),these oversized (for around here) orbs are considerably softer than their East Coast, as well as their Northwest brethren. Varieties usually are limited to plain, cinnamon-raisin, onion, poppyseed, Parmesan, sesame-seed, onion and, occasionally, honey-wheat and multigrain. Lots of folks like to toast them or use them as sandwich bread, especially the Parmesan variety. Either way these babies are substantial - weighing in at four ounces a piece - and a typical Costco bargain at slightly more than 29 cents each.

North Coast Fred Meyer, 695 S. Highway 101, Warrenton; (503) 861-3000; Rating: One bagelFred Meyer pedals The Bagel Bunch bagels ($1.99 for a bag of six), a brand distributed by a Cincinnati company. All nine flavors sport snappy names: Purely Plain, Weepin' Onion, Crankin' Cranberry, Wrinkly Raisin and so on. More like buns than bagels, these are unsubstantial smooshy concoctions that probably sell more because of packaging and store-placement than quality. Still, I admit my Very Berry Blueberry smelled and tasted of fresh berries, and time in the toaster gave it some character.

Some of the same bagel varieties (39 cents each) can be had at the Fred Meyer in-store bakery. Also overly soft, these bagels taste slightly more authentic than the packaged ones. Even though it wasn't very chewy, my jalapeno had some bite.

Bagels By The Sea, 575 S. Roosevelt St., Seaside; (503) 717-9145; Rating: Three bagelsThe fanciest bagels I've ever eaten are hatched inside this pleasant glassed-in storefront situated at the tail end of a strip mall fronting Highway 101. A Butter Nut Crunch Designer bagel and another coated with a confectionary blueberry-crumb mixture (90 cents each) border on being pastries. I saved mine for an after-meal sweet treat. Other designer choices include bagels infused with bacon and cheddar, one dotted with kalamata olives and another almost encased in asiago cheese, a must-try for cheese freaks.

House bagels (65 cents) range from plain and poppyseed to cranberry-orange and tomato-herb. Depending on the day, you might choose among 17 different varieties, the Columbia-Pacific region's best selection. Flavors generally are subtle rather than overpowering, and the texture is uniformly chewy. Spinach Parmesan, Honey Nut, Pumpkin and an always-potent garlic are some of my favorites.

Many regulars are addicted to Bagels By The Sea 20-plus sandwich lineup, everything from the hot Fancy Reuben (pastrami, coleslaw and melted Swiss) to an open-faced hummus further garnished with tomato, sprouts and a slice of red onion. There's even a breakfast menu featuring bagels smeared with a array of cream cheeses and layered with scrambled eggs, bacon or lox. Management is on to something here: a full-fledged bagel restaurant.

Seashore Bagels, 1188 S. Hemlock St., Cannon Beach; (503) 436-1132; Rating: Two and a half bagelsEnsconced in midtown across from City Hall, this modest, low-slung bagel bakery showcases eight or so of the usual bagel varieties (75 cents each), along with apple fritters, maple bars, cookies, berry strudels, ice cream, a host of bagel sandwiches and, of course, espresso. Although small, the bagels here are the doughiest, densest, firmest and crispiest I taste-tested. The now-deceased Jewish bagel meister who daily baked the finest crustiest orbs imaginable a few blocks from my mom's house (and once told me that his secret was extra-strength high-gluten flour and "hard" northern New Jersey water) probably would roll twice in his grave if he heard me say this, but I totally enjoyed my blueberry-cranberry bagel.

Contact the Mouth at The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103 or phone (503) 325-3211 or e-mail mouth@dailyasto


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