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Brian Eckhouse

Vegas bagels don't compare

1 May 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Last year, 2,621 New Yorkers moved to Nevada. Clearly, they didn't come for bagels.

Here, the Statue of Liberty is made of foam, and the bagels taste like they are.

The reasons range from the practical to the mystical. But most agree on the major cause: Lake Mead is more than suitable for recreation and hydropower, but the water it supplies for Las Vegas is so hard it smears glass and deprives bagels of their taste and composition. If natives could afford to shower in bottled water, they probably would.

The calcium content of water, says noted food chemist Shirley Corriher, determines the texture of bagels. Too much calcium hardens water — not desirable for all sorts of food, but particularly bagels. About 85 percent of the country has hard water, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, but this valley infamously has some of the roughest water nationwide.

"You can't get a good bagel or pizza here, not like Manhattan," acknowledges NYU grad Aysegul Weiss, who manages Weiss deli in Henderson. Weiss' boils its own bagels, New York-style, and she says her deli offers the valley's closest facsimile.

My grandfather warned me at a young age that if I left my native Long Island, pizza, matzo ball soup and bagels wouldn't be nearly as good.

Ah, the prescient Jewish grandfather; aside from his preferred baseball team (the Yankees, regrettably), Pops is rarely wrong. Empirically, bagels made 120 miles outside New York City just aren't the same, even if the cook happens to have been schooled there.

Elevation also is a deterrent in the preparation of bagels. The higher the elevation, the lower the boiling temperature of water, Corriher notes. "So things cooking in water don't get as hot," says the James Beard winner and author of "Cookwise."

Las Vegas is 2,028 feet above sea level, whereas the tallest hill in New York City is 410 feet above sea level — and that's in Staten Island, which isn't known as the mecca of bagels. New York's most famous bagelries are found in Brooklyn, Queens and the western half of Long Island.

In Summerlin, the Bagel Cafe is a favored breakfast joint of some former Easterners, but its bagels are closer in taste to the Einstein Bros. chain's than to any I've sampled in greater New York. The bagels there are soft and swollen, but at least they still have holes, unlike at some valley establishments.

Vegas bagels, says tourist and Queens native Nora Mohammed, 21, "are chewy like they just came out of the freezer." New York bagels, however, have an almost crispy exterior, with a tender, flavorful inside. They're unmistakable.

The nostalgia for home never wanes, but perhaps the palate becomes less nuanced as the years pass, especially on the opposite side of the continent.

You move to the West Coast and quickly adopt "wellness" as a fundamental lifestyle. Then you try yoga and find yourself cutting back on carbs and fats as much as possible. Sushi and protein shakes become more frequent than bagels, so it should come as no surprise that a Kahn's hot dog sold at Shea Stadium, once your home away from home, no longer appeals.

It took a year for me to find a satisfactory bagelry in the San Diego area, where I lived before moving to Vegas. A surfer-looking dude from New Jersey operates the joint there.

A friend from back East wasn't as convinced as I was. "It was good bread," he allowed with a sideways tilt of his head.

Faint praise, indeed.