Ghetto Bread

"Laura's from New York City. If Laura likes them, they're good."

Bridge and Tunnel (left), and the Oy Vey: more than enough.
  • Bridge and Tunnel (left), and the Oy Vey: more than enough.

Mike Altman says, “People tell me, ‘I’m from Brooklyn. These bagels better be good.’ I get that all the time.”

When you call your business Brooklyn Bagel and Bialy, I guess you’ve gotta expect it. Just like with pizza, those back-Easterners can be awful picky about their bagels.

I’d been wandering down Island toward Tenth Avenue, Dirty Del’s on one corner and, hey — guess I’m the last to notice — this bagel place. Market 32, the fresh-produce outlet, used to be here.

I see they’ve added varnished wooden seating and frosted-glass tables out on both the Island and Tenth sidewalks, which is great. So I go inside and get in line behind two gals who are searching a big display cabinet loaded with all kinds of bagels. First gal, Laura, asks for a poppy seed with cream cheese ($2.40). The other goes for a bagel with lox spread ($2.90). In a couple of minutes, they’ve moved two feet to the right. They chomp in right where they stand, up against the bagel cabinet.

“Good?” I ask.

“Good, good,” mumbles Laura. “And we’re from New York.”

“Well, I’m from Upstate New York, ‘the Tundra,’” says Caroline. “Laura’s from New York City. If Laura likes them, they’re good.”

Now I’m facing Tiffany, who stands behind the counter, underneath a long handwritten chalkboard. It lists bagels, bialy sandwiches, soups, and salads. I ain’t going to narrow this down anytime soon, so I figure I’ll start off with a toasted garlic bagel (90 cents) with butter (another 50 cents) and a coffee ($2.05, refills $1). Good news about the coffee is it’s organic, fair trade (meaning the middlemen aren’t screwing the farmer), and super delish.

I head out into the sunshine. Crisp shell to my garlic bagel, and it’s tender inside. Coulda done with a touch more butter. Whatever, it’s gone in a couple of minutes, and I’m back inside, searching that menu.

Love the names of the bialy sandwiches: the Chosen One (with cream cheese, lox — salmon — tomatoes, onions, boiled egg, $7.75); Sleep with the Fishes (tuna salad with roasted red peppers, $6.75); l Not Guilty (smoked turkey with “hand-torn” iceberg lettuce, cheese, mustard, $6.75); and Oy Vey, a triple-decker with ham, turkey, capicolla, salami, and salad on a toasted onion bialy ($8.25). One called the Cassidy is bacon between layers of peanut butter and bananas ($6.95) — man, I could go for that. They do salads, too, like the Threesome ($6.50), where you choose three of six: curry chicken; tuna; egg; whitefish; pasta; and chicken liver. There’s also a $3 soup of the day such as chicken or vegetable barley.

What’s a bialy? It’s like a bagel, but with no hole in the middle, and it’s not boiled in water before it’s baked. The bialy came from Bialystok, a city in eastern Poland that used to have a large Jewish community. But the late 1800s were bad days to be Jewish in Poland. Most in Bialystok took off for America. They brought their bialys with them.

Now it’s my turn at the counter. I’m just about to commit to the most expensive, the Oy Vey, when I see some breakfast deals at the left end of the board: the One and Only breakfast sandwich (with ham, egg, and cheese), $5.50; the Bridge and Tunnel (chicken-sausage links, egg, cheese), $5.25; the Good Start (with “soysage,” scrambled egg whites, and low-fat mozzarella), $5.50; the Undisputed Best (with hot pastrami, cheddar, and an over-easy egg on a jalapeño-cheddar bialy), $6.75. I go for the Bridge and Tunnel, adding 50 cents’ worth of red onion.

There’s plenty of it. The chicken sausage is sweet and herby, and the bagel doesn’t fight your bite. It’s so good, I decide to get in line one more time. I want an Oy Vey sandwich to split with Carla when I get home.

Next, a guy comes out from the kitchen area. He’s the owner, Mike Altman. Looks fit, is fit: he’s a mixed martial arts kickboxer. And not just any fighter. He was ranked #1 in the world in pro Sanshou rules cruiser weight kickboxing. He trained U.S. kickboxers for the Beijing Olympics, including the ultra-glam Sarah Ponce.

So, how come the transition to bagels?

“I was at the end of my fighting career; I’m Jewish, from New Jersey, and East Village here looked bagel-starved.”

He says the great New York bagel guru Howard G. Goldberg taught him the traditional way to make bagels, by hand. It’s work. “I come in in the evening, and I make the dough from scratch.” Then he’s back at 4:00 a.m., to boil the bagels in a giant water kettle he trucked across country from New York. Then he bakes them. “By 7:00, I have 24 varieties of bagels ready to eat.”

And where do bagels come from? “The Polish ghetto,” he says, “just like the bialy.” Stories say a Polish king, Jan III, had bagels made in the shape of his stirrup, to celebrate the defeat of the Ottoman Turks in 1683. Who knows? But with every bagel, you feel you’re biting into a chunk of history.

The Oy Vey? It was good, still juicy, rich with oregano and onion and that pile of mixed meats.

Later — and it is later, about 3:30 a.m. — when Carla and I are finally hitting the sack, I say, “He’ll be getting up now.”

“Who?” says Carla.

“The kickboxing champ who made our bagel.” ■

Brooklyn Bagel and Bialy

1000 Island Avenue, East Village

The Place: Brooklyn Bagel and Bialy, 1000 Island Avenue (at Tenth Avenue), 619-546-7610
Type of Food: Bagels, sandwiches, salads
Prices: Bagels, 90 cents–$1.25; Wild Turkey sandwich (with turkey rolled around asparagus, bacon, avo, $7.75; the Chosen One (with cream cheese, lox, tomatoes, onions, boiled egg, $7.75), Oy Vey (triple-decker with ham, turkey, capicolla, salami, $8.25); the Cassidy (bacon, peanut butter, bananas, $6.95); soups, $3
Hours: 7:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., daily
Buses: 3, 901, 929
Nearest Bus Stops: #3, 11th and Market (northbound), 10th and Market (southbound); #901, 11th and Market (901 northbound) 10th and Island (southbound); #929: 11th and Market (northbound), 10th and Island (southbound)
Trolleys: Blue Line, Orange Line
Trolley Station: Park and Market

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