Monday, January 30, 2012

Goodbye, H&H

I ended last week with a bagel-shaped hole in my heart.

The past year in particular has been very rough on Manhattan and Brooklyn mainstays. Mars Bar, Elaine's, Danal and Robin Des Bois, all gone. (OK, admittedly, I've never been to Elaine's but I liked knowing it was there.) Last week was especially painful. For the win: Holiday Cocktail Bar, Southpaw and Bleecker Bob's Records ... and H&H Bagels to close their last remaining location on West 46th Street. 

I have often said that one of the main reasons I could never leave the New York City area is that I'd miss the bagels too much. Sure, in the past year as I've been getting back in shape I've only allowed myself one every few weeks. But it's been comforting to know a good one is always within walking distance once that Defcon 5-sized craving manifests. If I were in Portland, Oregon or the Bay Area (no offense, to those kick ass cities) what I'd have to settle for would just make the carb monster in my belly angrier.

H&H is my benchmark bagel. Much like your first great pizza slice, or your first 6th Street Indian restaurant, or your first Menudo lineup, your first real New York City bagel is the one to live up to. Incidentally, it's named for Hector Toro and his brother-in-law, Hector Hernandez, who founded the business in 1972. Two Hectors in the H&H. Betcha didn't know that. 

I remember when my family lived in CT, my parents often had a date night in the city on Saturdays in Lincoln Center. On the drive home via the Upper West side, they always picked up spreads and fishes at Zabar's, then went next door to H&H for the bagels (like good New Yorkers, they knew you never buy it all in one place). Even at a very young age, due to lifelong insomnia, I was often up when they got home late at night. I watched as my dad would unpack the goods. I would salivate as I caught that sweet, yeasty scent emanating from the paper bag of fresh bagels (H&H baked them fresh all day and night) as it sat on the 70's avocado green kitchen counter. 

We actually owned a bagel tray. It was clear acrylic and long with a circular bottom, perfectly shaped to serve each half bagel upright. They didn't last long in there as my parents, my Grandma Nina and I snatched and slathered them with our preferred toppings. I was a picky eater then, hated smoked fish (this has since changed, but it took a long time), and didn't much care for cream cheese. But don't take away my Heeb license yet because I've always loved chopped liver. (I was not a petite child). Maybe I had an aversion to the other toppings because all three of the adults always seemed to be wearing their herrings and whitefish salad and lox on their cheeks and chins, so absorbed in their business that they couldn't be bothered to wipe it away until they were through. I had seen Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. They were like a pack of hungry, Jewish wolves.

But the H&H bagels themselves could never gross me out. They were always fresh (even a day or two old), a modest size, with just the right amount of bite and give without being too dense or chewy, with a kiss of sweetness. The onion was never too oniony. The sesame was always toasty. Even the cinnamon raisin was perfect when served warm with butter, never too cinnamonny or dessert-like. Many cinnamon raising bagels are like icingless Cinnabons, and that is just wrong.

As an adult living in the city, you learn to live with your Bagel of Convenience. Back in the late 1980s and 90s, there was Munchy's on St. Mark's Place that us NYU'ers worshipped on a regular basis (only 1$ with cream cheese and 50 cents with butter, it was a diet staple. Yet I was somehow delicately slender in those days). Baked on premise, those came pretty close. There are decent stand-ins near where I live in Brooklyn. But too many bagel chains offer these humongous, cake-like things (Zarro, I'm talking to you) that are more like loaves of boiled sweet bread with a hole in them rather than a proper, chewy bagel. Some are even sort of, gasp!, square-shaped or barely have a hole in them. Those look like angry Muppets, not a bagel, dammit!

But I would still make an occasional, out-of-the-way pilgrimage to the Upper West to pay my respects to the King, H&H. As good as some are, there was a certain je ne sais fuck yeah about their bagels that even the good neighborhood joints couldn't top. I'm afraid the exact recipe is gone to the grave like Grandma Nina's pirozhki or O.G.'s Five Spice Chicken. 

I'm a fatalist. I knew the business was in trouble, but I never imagined New Yorkers would let a thing like this happen. Had I known it was for keeps, I would have been sure to stop by for one last toasted sesame with schmear. I wish someone with some cash  (if they really wanted to win people over) would see the worth in resurrecting H&H and preserving this bastion of New York City existence. Good bye, old friend. You really were like no other bagel in the world. We'll miss you. 


Melissa Sarno said...

Oh my gosh, this is a major loss. I am going to make a bold statement and say there are absolutely no good bagels in our neighborhood. Ever since I left my old apartment on 18th st. in Manhattan, just around the corner from the AMAZING Ess-a Bagels, I am in a bagel-less world and my life is poorer for it. Even if my waist line is smaller.

winenshine said...

I do think Court Street Bagels and La Bagel Delight on Court off Atlantic are really good. But yeah, nothing beats H&H. Ess-a is pretty damn close...