Sink your teeth into a soft, warm bagel with a perfectly crunchy outside and a layer of smooth, buttery cream cheese, and you’ll agree it’s a superior breakfast food. For many, it’s a nostalgic reminder of home.
On the surface, a bagel is a seemingly simple baked good made from flour, salt, sugar, yeast and warm water. But ask anyone about their go-to bagel, and you’re sure to get wildly different answers — from a plain bagel with cream cheese to a classic bacon, egg and cheese sandwich on a cinnamon sugar bagel.
The two most popular types of bagels are Montreal-style and New York-style. Though the baking process is similar, there are small but important differences between them. Montreal bagels are typically smaller in size, boiled in water with honey and baked in a wood-fired oven. New York bagels are larger, boiled in water with malt and baked in a traditional oven.
“We both grew up on bagels in New Jersey, right outside New York City,” said Greg Odachowski, who owns Holey City Bagels with his fiancé Bridget Byrne. “We wanted to bring New York-style bagels to Charleston. … Nobody was really doing this downtown, especially the traditional way of hand rolling, boiling and baking them from scratch.”
Odachowski and Byrne opened their shop at 43 Cannon St. in June 2022, but Odachowski’s been refining his bagel-making skills since he taught himself by watching YouTube videos in 2016. He perfected his recipe and started serving his creations out of an Airstream motor home converted into a food truck in 2020.
Now, the shop pumps out hundreds of fresh-baked bagels every day with classic flavors such as sesame, salt and everything to more adventurous options like jalapeño cheddar, rosemary salt and chocolate chip.
The bagel sandwiches at Holey City Bagels are stacked high with toppings. The bagels here have that signature New York-style crunch, and they’re large enough to keep you full for hours.
A classic bacon, egg and cheese on an everything bagel is by far the most popular choice, Byrne said. But a colossal sandwich called the Holey Moley is another standout, piled high with pork roll, sausage, bacon, four eggs and four slices of cheese.
“We have people who are [originally] from New York who drive a long way to come get our bagel,” Byrne said. “They grew up on bagels. It’s part of the culture.
“I think eating a bagel is just so comforting. People who grew up with great bagels, there is something nostalgic to it. … You just don’t get sick of it — the flavor of it, the texture.”
Cream cheese is also made in-house and the couple is constantly testing out new creations. They recently added a loaded lox cream cheese to the menu, which features capers, scallions and salmon lox, giving the spread a unique texture and classic flavor.
Lox bagels are a meal that resonates across states and cultures. For Philip Lipton, owner of Moonrise Sourdough on James Island, it’s a part of his heritage.
“Bagels are part of my culture because I’m Jewish, so I’ve always grown up eating bagels at synagogue after service,” he said. “Bagel, lox and cream cheese is an officially Jewish food at every bar mitzvah. It’s definitely cultural for me.”
Lipton has been making his own bread for 12 years and learned to make bagels from scratch about five years ago. He sells his specialty sourdough bagels, breads and cookies at various markets in the area including the Sunday Brunch Farmers Market at Pour House every Sunday year-round and North Charleston Farmers Market every Thursday through October.
“Sourdough is a lot healthier for you. I just know from experience that it feels good in your body. It’s something sustainable,” Lipton said. “You can actually eat them throughout the week and not feel heavy. Also, they’re just so much more flavorful.”
Lipton offers traditional bagel flavors as well as rotating specials; some incorporate local ingredients like James Island blueberries while others push creativity like a bagel with gochujang (red chili paste) and garlic from Spade and Clover farm.
Lipton follows a New York-style recipe and boils the bagels in Italian organic barley malt before a quick ice bath and bakes them on clay stones.
Though bagels are seemingly a universal comfort food, the growing popularity of New York-style bagels in Charleston may be a result of northerners moving to the area in recent years, Odachowski said.
The South is typically associated with breakfast items like grits and biscuits, but an increased demand for home-made bagels has been brewing.
Make it your own
Two couples from Connecticut, Kevin and Gail Roach and Joe and Denise Harvey, who now live in Mount Pleasant, noticed a need for more bagel shops.
They opened Ruby’s New York Style Bagels in October 2022, and quickly won the area over, even being named Best Bagel by Charleston City Paper voters in the 2023 Best of Charleston contest.
Ruby’s dough is made from scratch every day before it’s fermented in the fridge, then boiled in water with malt and baked in the oven.
“We do it just like they would in New York,” Joe Harvey said. “We have a great bagel, but what really sets us apart is we have the best staff.”
He said their bagels have been so well received, they opened a second location in North Charleston in July and plan to open another in West Ashley this fall.
The New York-style process pays off. These bagels are crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside. Currently, Ruby’s offers 20 types of bagels and 10 kinds of cream cheese. For something unique, try the pizza bagel or indulge in a sweet treat with Oreo cream cheese.
“I think bagels are comforting for people, [especially] people who have eaten bagels for most of their lives,” Harvey said. “It’s kind of routine … and there’s so much you can do with it.”
It’s true — the number of ways you can order a bagel is seemingly endless. Whether you’re craving a classic bacon, egg and cheese sandwich (also one of Ruby’s most popular items) or you want to make up your own combination, it’s possible to have a different sandwich every day of the week.
Bagel Nation on James Island takes its bagel sandwich selection seriously with a long list of options for breakfast and lunch.
Indulge in its “Southern Belle” with egg, Cajun spices, green peppers, tomatoes, sausage and cheese for breakfast, or if you’re looking for something really filling, opt for the “Manhattan” lunch sandwich with hot corned beef and pastrami, melted Swiss cheese and Russian dressing or horseradish mustard sauce.
The bagels here are fluffy, flavorful, crunchy and most definitely filling. Of course, if you want to keep it simple, you can always select your favorite bagel flavor to pair with a cream cheese.
A different kind of oven
Most bagel shops in the area stick to the New York-style recipe, but a new shop, Spread Bagelry in Mount Pleasant, is doing things a bit differently with its Montreal-style bagels.
Spread’s chief operating officer Brooks Tanner said this style of bagel is more rustic. The bagel dough is made by a bakery in Brooklyn using Spread’s recipe before being frozen and sent to its Mount Pleasant location.
Then, the bakers build a wood fire in the oven at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. The dough is boiled in water with honey before it’s baked in the wood-fired oven and served to the customer.
“What we’ve found is that the art itself really comes into the proofing process and the baking process. This wood-fired oven is something magical, and we’ve really trained [our bakers] on this archaic way of baking,” Tanner said.
Though Spread has 13 locations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and now Mount Pleasant, the shop has become involved in the local community, partnering with businesses like The Works yoga and spin studio, which has a garden veggie-style sandwich named after it on the menu.
“We’ve really been blessed with the community that has embraced us and the people who work for us.”
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