As a fourth-generation Jewish New Yorker, I have some strong opinions about bagels. Of all my mildly hot takes (toasting is not the sin others make it out to be, most places use too much cream cheese), I have one opinion that is the most controversial: I will only travel a maximum of one neighborhood for a bagel. When the hunger for a bagel arises, there is most likely a good enough bagel in the immediate or adjacent neighborhood.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered a bagel that changed my mind - in Los Angeles. Yes, a bagel I would travel across many neighborhoods for.
I came to LA this winter expecting to find many things: excellent affordable strip mall sushi, glorious birria tacos, life-changing Thai and Korean restaurants, sunshine, and even myself. I definitely did not come looking for bagels.
But then I tried a burnt everything bagel topped with salmon roe at Courage Bagels, in LA’s Virgil Village, and I found something I didn’t know I was even looking for. I found, without question, the best bagel I have ever tasted.
Courage is one of the bagel shops mentioned in Tejal Rao’s New York Times piece, positing that California’s bagels are now superior to New York’s. I agree with this statement partially: mostly in that Courage’s bagels are outstanding.
The first thing that stands out is the crackly crust, which reminds me of crispy chicken skin, or an expertly-made creme brulee. The insides are complex and tart – what you wish your homemade sourdough could ever be. The plain bagel, an important bellwether of any bagel enterprise, shows off the baking prowess at play here, but it’s the “burnt everything” that’s Courage’s most iconic.
The bagels themselves would be enough to write about, and any visit here should include two loose bagels, the maximum allotted, to take home. But the Courage experience is further elevated by carefully topping the bagels with silky seafood, cucumbers and tomatoes that remind you you’re in California, freshly cracked salt and pepper, and just-right drizzlings of olive oil. They are served open-faced, with the glistening toppings on display in a style that feels decidedly Gjusta-esque.
Courage Bagels proprietor Ari Skye described the bagels to me as inspired by “the crispy charred qualities of Montreal,” “the ancient baking techniques of Europe,” and “with all the farm-fresh ingredients and rule-breaking of California.” She herself is from Michigan, and is a self-taught baker who started making bagels after being fired from her desk job four years ago. Skye’s boyfriend and business partner Chris Moss, originally from New Jersey, had past experience as a baker and helped inspire the effort.
Skye initially started selling her bagels from her bike basket around Silver Lake, and then later became popular with her regular appearances at farmers markets. The storefront was already in the works when lockdown started last March, and opened in fall 2020 as an order-at-the-window operation, out of financial necessity. “We had to open when we did because we had rent to pay,” Skye says. “It was leap into the unknown or perish.”
Perish they did not. Once the shop opened last fall, word quickly seemed to spread among LA food-interested people about these bagels, and almost immediately, a line was snaking down Virgil Avenue each weekend. As I said myself, these are bagels worth traveling for, and getting one on a Sunday can now take an hour.
To be clear, waiting an hour for a bagel is still anathema to me. Fortunately, I have been living just one neighborhood away from Courage, which has meant I’ve taken advantage of swinging by on a weekday, when lines are short and you can be on your way, bagel in hand, in about 15 minutes.
Courage is just one of several trendy food businesses to have drawn people from across the city to this gentrifying stretch of Virgil Village over the years. Skye and Moss have both lived within a few minutes of the shop for the past decade, and say, they want to serve all members of the community. “We feel like food is some sort of love language that lets people set aside differences and focus on what we have in common: care for each other, respect – the simple enjoyment of a nourishing meal,” Skye says. “We are just at the beginning of this and trying to figure things out as we go - but of course, we want to create a place where everyone is genuinely welcome and well served.” So far at Courage, there is a menu in Spanish, and they sell pan dulce from Super Pan, a Guatemalan panadería that occupied the storefront for 20 years before losing its lease a few years ago.
Awed by how good Courage was, I also spent some time exploring whether LA had perhaps quietly become a Bagel Town. Upon trying some other bagels that had been described as good to me, I can tell you that my personal opinion is… not really.
The other heralded bagels I’ve tried in LA were absolutely respectable, with toppings that range from interesting to questionable. However, I would not travel for them. The thing about New York is that you don’t have to travel more than one neighborhood for a bagel. The difference between the good ones and the great ones is simply not worth getting on a subway for. This is where my opinion differs a bit from that of The Times. New York is still a better bagel city. It is still the bagel city.
In that way, LA making arguably the world’s best bagel reminds me of Tokyo making arguably the world’s best Neapolitan pizza. Freed from expectations and blessed with incredible produce, one or a few chefs and bakers can tinker away at perfecting a product. You don’t see it coming, and find it hard to believe, until the carb enters your mouth. This doesn’t take anything away from New York’s pizza prowess, nor that of Naples or Rome.
I find it unlikely that LA will become an iconic bagel city. But one shop here is definitely making iconic bagels.