Bagels and lox and cream cheese. It's a confluence of flavors and textures that made its way from Eastern Europe to the world via the immigrant waves of New York. In her 2011 Saveur magazine piece, "Soul Food," Elissa Altman explains that the bagel represents the sweet circle of life, and the lox, the salty sadness of tears. For most of us, a plate of bagel and lox simply tastes like New York. Or at least what New York tastes like in our memories and dreams.
The construct is simple: a bagel sliced in half, a spread of thick cream cheese, several slices of cured salmon, capers, tomato, and thin slices of red onion. So what distinguishes one bagel and lox from another? It's the fresh chew of the bagel, the buttery texture of the fish, the ratio of salty to sweet.
New York City may be the bagel and lox capital of the world, but the opportunities to enjoy a decent rendition here in Atlanta have expanded appreciably over the years. While Goldberg's and Bagel Palace have been bagel stalwarts for decades, places like BB's Bagels way out in Alpharetta and the new deli spin of the General Muir are reshaping the Atlanta bagel landscape. For this Smackdown, we stuck to daily bagel and lox purveyors, knocking out those that only step up to the plate for weekend brunch, no matter how worthy.
Before we commence, let's clear one thing up: Lox is not the same thing as smoked salmon. Lox is actually salt-cured salmon. The confusion arises in part from the fact that smoked salmon so often ends up on a plate when lox is ordered. I rang up one of the country's leading lox providers — Acme Smoked Fish in Brooklyn — who confirmed that smoked salmon outsells lox by more than 10 to 1. And, yes, salt-cured fish can be salty. But salt curing rather than smoking can also make for a more buttery texture and a flavor more purely of the sea, without the hazy edge imparted by smoke. For the Smackdown, we stuck to lox whenever possible.
Now, on to our contenders.
Old School: Bagel Palace Deli & Bakery
Open since 1993 in Toco Hills, Bagel Palace may not be as old as Goldberg's, but it feels old, and a bit rough around the edges. When I ordered, the waitress asked to make sure I did indeed want lox rather than smoked salmon, then happily obliged, pleased to see someone stick with the saltier stuff. The Bagel and Sliced Belly Lox comes out on a plate covered with a lightly toasted bagel of your choosing, sliced tomato, slivers of red onion, capers, and cream cheese. They give you just enough lox to cover about half a bagel, which is breadier than others around town, missing that sought-after density, lacking flavor. There's something off about the lox, too. I'm not sure why, since Bagel Palace orders their lox from Brooklyn's acclaimed Acme Smoked Fish, but something about it tastes packaged, rubbery, not of the sea. $10.99. 2869 N. Druid Hills Road. 404-315-9016. www.bagelpalaceatl.com.
Big and Bountiful: BB's Bagels and Diner
After some confusing back-and-forth — the word lox shows up on BB's menu, but not in the bagel section — I was able to confirm that BB's serves smoked salmon, not lox. When you order the Fresh Nova Salmon Platter, it comes out on a plate barely visible beneath two giant halves of a bagel, piled with hefty portions of cream cheese and salmon, thick slices of tomato, and solid rounds of white onion. BB's bagels are massive compared to others in Atlanta, the kind of chewy and delightfully dense bagels that clearly reflect a New York attitude. A small cup of capers sits on the side, and a sharp knife is provided as well, which comes in handy to hack these bagels down to a manageable size. So does it hurt that BB's turns to smoked salmon rather than lox? Well, this smoked salmon is not particularly smoky, and is every bit as fresh and buttery as most of the lox around town. So no, the lack of lox is not a terrible thing. And the bagels themselves warrant the long drive waaay out to Alpharetta. But, as good as it is, I can barely finish one half of this massive plate for breakfast. $11.49. 770 McFarland Parkway, Alpharetta. 770-475-1818. www.BBsBagels.net.
Seeing Red: Buttermilk Kitchen
A new kid in town, and more about biscuits than bagels, Buttermilk Kitchen's Lox Plate wins points for originality. The presentation is beautiful. Thick slices of salmon are wrapped up like roses and served alongside a Jerusalem bagel from H&F Bread Co. It's flatter and broader than a typical bagel, coated completely in sesame seeds for a nutty crunch. But the bagel overall is a bit bready despite being so thin. Buttermilk cures its lox in house, using beet juice in the mix, which imparts a beautiful ruby red color. Unfortunately, there's a slightly spicy tang to it that detracts from what should be a luxurious feeling of lox-on-tongue. And, if anything, it could use more salt to make the salmon flavor pop. Buttermilk also uses a non-traditional cream cheese flecked with diced red and green peppers. The vegetal hit of too many peppers kills the sweet, creamy contrast that the lox calls out for. A lightly dressed salad of butter lettuce, onions, and capers comes on the side. It's a nice touch, but it can't restore harmony to the disparate flavors at play here. $12. 4225 Roswell Road. 678-732-3274. www.buttermilkkitchen.com.
Bargain Bagel: Goldberg's Bagel Company & Deli
Goldberg's has been in Atlanta since 1972, slowly expanding to six locations over that time (plus outposts at the airport). Opening up a Toco Hills location right across the parking lot from Bagel Palace seems a bit cruel, but I can't deny that about almost everything about Goldberg's bagel and lox is superior to Bagel Palace's. Especially the price. Goldberg's Breakfast Special — $5.95 for a bagel with cream cheese and lox AND a small cup of coffee — is listed as take-out only, but you can enjoy it at one of the tables in the to-go area. It comes as a fully assembled sandwich, cut through the middle so you can see the contrast of bright pink lox and red tomato in between slabs of white cream cheese dotted with capers and red onion. The smear of cream cheese is dense — so you may want to ask them to go light on that. The lox is brought in weekly from Acme and has a nice salty edge to it — the most prominent of the ones I tasted around town. Again, I'm not sure why Goldberg's Acme lox is better than Bagel Palace's Acme lox. But it is, at least on my visits. Goldberg's bagels are good, too, with a nice crisp crust and chewy give in the middle. $5.95. 4383 Roswell Road, 404-256-3751, and other metro Atlanta locations. www.goldbergsdeli.net.
Artsy Affair: The General Muir
Atlanta's new deli, both in age and approach, the General Muir gussies up its bagel and lox for visual impact. The Avenue D comes open faced on a wooden board, the peachy colored, house-cured lox serving as a canvas for bright green, diced cucumber and chive, plus a sprinkle of deep orange salmon roe. The lox is pleasantly salty, a bit chewy in a sashimi kind of way, and full of flavor. The schmear of cream cheese, despite the name, is a pleasantly thin spread, so as not to detract from the composition. The smattering of salmon roe on top adds a pop of texture and a bright, citrusy, briny bite. General Muir's house-made bagels have an almost-doughy interior and lightly crunchy exterior. They simply taste more bagel-y, with more character than other bagels around town. It's one of the few places where ordering a plain bagel feels like the best move. $12. 1540 Avenue Place. 678-927-9131. www.thegeneralmuir.com.
This Bagel and Lox Smackdown proved that Atlanta has at least one contender worthy of battling New York's best. The General Muir's Avenue D knocks out the competition with a combo of creativity and attention to house-crafted detail. This is a bagel and lox standard reinterpreted both subtly and successfully — a winning combination.
Two runners-up also fought valiantly. Goldberg's sticks to the basics, delivering the most bang for your buck with its $5.95 Breakfast Special. BB's Bagels, despite its lack of lox proper, gets me in a New York state of mind with those big and chewy bagels.
The other contenders? Buttermilk Kitchen's concoction, despite its good looks, is too clever for its own good. And Bagel Palace simply needs to revisit the basics to get back in fighting form. The battle of bagels and lox, after all, is serious business.