Beyond Bagels

Searching Portland for Bialys, the Onion-Flecked Polish Cousin of the Bagel

You’ll find them at Ben and Esther’s in Roseway, but only early on Saturday mornings.

By Julia Silverman February 25, 2020 Published in the March 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Michael Novak

The person behind the counter at Beetroot, the Northwest Portland spot that bills itself as a “modern Jewish deli” cocked their head, clearly puzzled. I’d asked for a bialy, an Old World, crusty-yet-pliant roll with a deep well of roasted onions and a small smattering of poppy seeds at its center.

Bialys are emphatically not bagels, though they are kin. For one thing, there’s no hole. Also, a traditional bialy is not boiled before baking, has a far higher yeast content, and contains no malt or sugar. Best warmed in an oven and eaten with a swipe of cream cheese or butter, bialys are a Manhattan tradition, brought to the city by the Jewish diaspora, in this case, from city in northeastern Poland called—what else?—Bialystok.

In Portland, where even exceptional bagel emporiums offer a blueberry variety (get a muffin, for God’s sake), bialys remain elusive. But a new wave of cafés around town featuring Ashkenazi-inspired cooking merited fresh investigation.

Beetroot is one of the new guard, a light, pleasant storefront with a backroom full of luxe halvah and grab-and-go whitefish salad.

Still, my heart sank when the cashier politely shrugged and said they’d never heard of a bialy. Even the reigning critical darling of Portland bagel places, North Portland’s Bernstein’s Bagels, doesn’t carry them. Henry Higgins Boiled Bagels, in Foster-Powell, might sell you a bialy, but they’re not steadily available.

Then, word came of Ben and Esther’s, a Jewish inspired bagel/deli hybrid opened in late 2019 in Northeast Portland’s Roseway neighborhood, where you can find a homestyle bowl of matzo ball soup and a fragrant wedge of noodle kugel studded with raisins, among other offerings. Here, there are bialys, but usually only on Saturdays, and they’ve been known to sell out before 9 a.m.

After my years in the bialy wilderness, the texture of Ben and Esther’s effort felt like a homecoming: crisp enough to shatter around the edges, chewy and tangy inside, close enough to the bialys of childhood that I fell quiet, chewing thoughtfully.

In true Jewish tradition, one can gripe: the center of the well is too fragile, the rough-chopped onion filling could be jammier, and the poppy seeds are sparse. But Ben and Esther’s is still young. The bialys are there, at least on Saturday mornings. It’s progress, nu?

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