Unless you’ve lived in New York City or know a bialy maker like Adam Thompson, chances are that most of your experience with bialys have been limited to sad, dry grocery store numbers with a half-hearted dot of onion and poppyseed in the middle, and that's if you can find them at all.
Too often, bialys are a baked, yeasty afterthought sold alongside the main draw of bagels, their traditionally boiled cousins. When PoMo news editor Julia Silverman, born and raised in Manhattan, went on a bialy quest shortly before the pandemic, she only found one option that came even remotely close to her standards—the bialy at Roseway's Ben and Esther’s, which is only available Sundays and Mondays.
Now, another bialy has entered the Portland fray with Bialy Bird, a pop-up that baker Adam Thompson started in April 2022. After years working in the restaurant industry, mostly in Italian restaurants, and then nearly twenty years as the bassist in the band Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, he’s now the manager at Bernstein’s Bagels (816 N Russell St). After several requests at the shop for bialys, Thompson decided to take matters into his own hands with a pop-up at Bernstein’s, along with help from fellow Bernstein’s employee Keith Dickerson. But these aren’t ordinary bialys. “This person is cheffing up his bialys! Huckleberry potato? No thank you, I’m out!” proclaimed Silverman when I excitedly showed her Bialy Bird’s pre-order menu.
Instead of the standard onion and poppyseed filling, you’ll find year-round staples such as miso-onion, black tahini with chile crisp, and cacio e pepe. But these bialys are also highly seasonal, with much of the produce either grown locally or in Thompson’s own backyard. I tried the huckleberry potato, which is not, in fact, a combination of berries and potatoes, but a type of purple-skinned potato with a sweeter flavor and tender interior. The potato edges crisped up beautifully in the oven with a generous glaze of olive oil, while the inside was soft like a baked potato. On top was a generous garnish of what Thompson calls “allium mix,” including green onions and their flowers. If you’ve never tasted a green onion flower before, you’re missing out—they’re slightly sweet, with a hint of sharp onion flavor. Both the potatoes and the green onions came straight from Thompson’s garden.
Another hit: Sauvie Island-grown blueberries with imported Okinawan black sugar. “It's hard to describe like how deep the flavor is, but it's just incredibly good and so different,” says Thompson. I also tried the cacio e pepe bialy, used as the basis for a prosciutto sandwich, with a generously cheesy crust, though it wasn’t quite reminiscent of the pasta dish. Schmears are also available, with flavors ranging from blueberry-basil to sweet corn-miso with shichimi—though I can’t quite imagine adding a schmear to an already topping-heaped bialy. (Thompson suggests cutting the bialys into quarters like pizza slices, then slathering with your schmear of choice.)
The basis for all these, of course, is the dough. Not just any dough, but a sourdough, which also just happens to be vegan. “It’s something I’ve been passionate about forever,” says Thompson. He’s recently switched from flour from Bob’s Red Mill to flour from Cairnspring Mills, located in Washington’s Skagit Valley. “Ultimately what we get is a higher percentage of the whole grain in the flour without sacrificing any of the extensibility,” says Thompson. Extensibility refers to the stretchiness of the dough that all-purpose flour typically provides; Cairnspring’s flour has that quality, while providing the nutrition and flavor found in whole wheat flour.
I haven’t had many bialys in my life, so I can’t say how the bialys at Bialy Bird stack up next to their more classical counterparts at Manhattan corner bagel counters. What I do know, however, is that they’re delicious, snack-sized pieces of bread—and if you schedule your pick-up time toward the earlier side of things, they might even be warm, as mine were. I might even describe them as danish-sized pizzas. Regardless, they’re worth a try.
Bialys must be pre-ordered online; ordering is open until August 19 at 2 p.m. for Bialy Bird’s next all-vegan pop-up in collaboration with vegan food lover Waz Wu’s Portland chapter of Veganizer, which takes place at Bernstein’s Bagels on August 21 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. If you miss that one, the next pre-order window is on August 23, for a pop-up on August 26.