In the beginning, Noah Bernstein was a math nerd–turned–jazz saxophonist from rural Vermont, who grew up on the Ben & Jerry’s ethos: “If it’s not fun, why do it?” In 2015, eight years after landing in Portland, he was living the dream, blowing like a demon in 15 bands. Between tours, he assumed another identity: home bagelmeister, tackling memories of East Coast rounds like a Talmudic scholar with an apron. Meanwhile, in a parallel Portland universe, another math head named Peter Hurteau (stage name Peter Rainbeau), was dreaming up songs for his “psych crooner folk band.” In his spare time, Hurteau also lived a double life as a home baker, possessed by the exacting tomes of local bread star Ken Forkish. The two quickly met through friends. Then things got interesting.
Yes, it sounds like plot of a quirky Sundance prize winner. But it’s the true-life backstory on how two fast friends forged Portland’s best bagels, each slow-risen, hand-rolled, boiled, blistered, and good enough to step into the ring on the Lower East Side. The hallmarks are here: the ineluctable chew, tight-but-light crumb, faint malt perfume, and eyes-rolled-back-in-head happiness. Best so far are the well-balanced everything bagels; the extra-crunchy poppy seed, rolled in a black cloud of seeds; and the weekend-only pumpernickel, an intoxication of rye, caraway, coffee, and cocoa. As one friend recently noted: “They passed my New York Jew test.”
You may not have heard of Bernstein’s Bagels, the duo’s charmingly rickety, primarily take-out shop with limited hours in St. Johns. (Their marketing has consisted of one Mercury ad that read, “Fuck toast.”) But word is growing, quickly, and sell-outs are the norm. The kitchen is basically the whole place: four staffers, elbow to shoulder, heads bopping furiously to blaring music, making bagels before our eyes, nine varieties, sandwiches, schmears. Meanwhile, a bigger, bona fide café opened in December on North Russell Street in the former Mint space, with some two dozen seats, a white-tiled counter and an expanse of hand-painted art nouveau wallpaper. Compared to the original, this is Rem Koolhaas.
While bagels are traditional, schmears are playful and seasonal, spiked with the likes of Mama Lil’s spicy peppers or honey-soaked raisins. But cream cheese gets a different, disastrous, treatment for bagel sandwiches—whipped into a big-hair frenzy somewhere between mayo and whipped cream. To eat them is to feel like a Looney Tunes character closing a suitcase: push on one side, and everything shoots out the back. Instead, the Team Bagel (a.k.a. “what the staff eats”) is the way to go, a beautiful calculus of butter, cukes, onion bite, and, for the pork Jews among us, prosciutto.
Bernstein’s feels like one of those quintessential local places, part food purist ideals, part garage-rock aesthetic. It wears its heart on its sleeve—Street Roots on the counter and band practice, which now includes both owners (and Peter’s wife, Melanie Nead, on drums) after work. The bagels are pure New York, but the shop is pure Portland. As it should be.