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Bagels and Fish - Lead
Credit: Daniel Kreiger/Courtesy Food & Wine

We can talk about pizza or talk about pastrami. But if New York has a corner on any one foodstuff, it’s the humble bagel. A true New York bagel is shaped by hand, boiled and then baked, giving you something that’s lightly crusted, pleasantly chewy and a perfect base for sandwiches.

There’s nothing wrong with a bagel that’s buttered or cream cheesed, and an egg-and-cheese bagel has cured many a Manhattan hangover. But the bagel’s truest friend is smoked fish.

The filling: Lox, you may have heard of, but there’s a whole vocabulary of fish terms you should know, including several just for salmon. Nova is brined and then cold-smoked. Lox and gravlax aren’t actually smoked at all: Anything called lox is brined in salt, and gravlax is brined in sugar, salt and dill. Moving on to decadently rich white fish, both sturgeon and sable are buttery, with a high fat content that makes them ideal for smoking. For all of the above, cream cheese is a standard accompaniment, preferably the freshly whipped sort, not brick-hard from the refrigerator.

The bread: These days you can find bagels the diameter of salad plates, but once upon a time, they were only about three inches across. That’s the ideal size for a bagel sandwich—any bigger and you have too much airy inside, not enough crusty outside.

Where to get it:

Russ & Daughters. Known as “New York’s premier appetizing shop,” this family-owned business has been around for a solid century. It is not only a piece of city history—it serves some of NYC’s best smoked and cured fish, full stop. You can’t go wrong with any fish delicately layered (or spread) on a bagel, from the humble whitefish salad to the rarefied sturgeon. But the inventive sandwiches are just as much fun, like the Heebster (whitefish and baked salmon salad with horseradish–dill cream cheese) or the Daughters’ Delight (Gaspe nova and Alaskan salmon roe with cream cheese).

Barney Greengrass. Also among the city’s Old Guard of appetizing, but unlike Russ & Daughters, there’s actually room to sit. The delightfully crabby waitstaff is part of the fun, but you’re here for the smoked fish. If you’re feeling flush, the sturgeon and Nova Scotia salmon sandwich is unforgettable.

Black Seed. Noah Bernamoff made his name in New York by reinventing the classic deli, so it’s no surprise he’s branching out into bagels. They’re hand-rolled, boiled and wood-fired, intended to be somewhere between the denser, crustier Montreal style and the airier New York one. As for the sandwiches? The No. 3, with tobiko spread, salmon and butter lettuce, is hard to beat.