In this preview from the November issue of The Blue and White, contributor Tamsin Pargiter, BC ’16, takes a look at Absolute’s hold on the Morningside bagel market.
There are certain paradoxical elements to the continuing success of Absolute Bagels. How can they make such delicious bagels and yet serve such horribly burnt coffee? How did a group of Thai bakers end up excelling at a traditionally Jewish trade? How can they have such high rankings from food critics and such low rankings by sanitation standards? In short, how can they fall short of most of the traditional qualifications for a “good
restaurant” while succeeding in making us all hopeless Absolute addicts? These are the quandaries I struggle with as I stand in line, mouth watering, watching trays of steaming bagels appear magically from the kitchen.
If you have had the misfortune of drinking coffee at Absolute, then you probably spent your next visits determined to find an alternative beverage, and in doing so, probably noticed their Thai iced tea. Besides the bagels and spreads, the Thai iced tea is arguably the only worthwhile choice on their menu. When speaking with employees, I found that almost everyone who works there emigrated from Thailand, and that most of them have been there for at least five years. The owner, Sam Thongkrieng, moved to New York from Bangkok in the 80’s and upon tasting his first bagel, knew exactly where his life was headed. After learning the art of bagelcraft at Ess-a-Bagel, Thongkrieng opened Absolute in 1990.
When asked what distinguishes their bagels as superior, several employees emphasized that there are two noteworthy factors. Firstly, they stuck with New York Jewish tradition, using recipes that have remained relatively unchanged since the early 1900’s. Secondly, and probably more importantly, their bagels are fresh. According to bagel experts, (namely Ed Levine of seriouseats.com), even the best bagel is hardly worth eating after five hours. As a professional bagel eater, Levine believes that bagels should be eaten untoasted, but concedes that if the bagel is over five hours old (which ideally never happens), a toaster may actually be able to save it from an otherwise unsavory end.
Ranked by Business Insider and Zagat as the best bagels in all of NYC, described by bagel blogs (they exist) as having “the perfect ratio of crunchiness to soft chewiness”, and deemed by Columbia students “the best bagel in Morningside Heights”, there is no doubt that Absolute Bagels serves scrumptious bagels. But what about their rocky history with the NYC Department of Health? Since 2010, they’ve earned an ‘A’ on only 4 of 12 inspections, with the past 6 months being the longest period of time in which they have been able to sustain an ‘A’ grade. With reports of live mice, roaches, contaminated food, and bad hand-washing practices, Absolute Bagels has been shut down twice in their 23 years of existence, most recently this past January. In a city known for having a viciously competitive restaurant industry, failing health inspections could be reason enough to close many restaurants’ doors forever. Absolute Bagels, on the other hand, reopened their doors to a line down the block.
I wonder if, in another city, Absolute would have been regarded as the best of the best, or even survived. It’s emblematic of a New York something. It’s the story of Thongkrieng assimilating and reworking a staple of NYC’s native culture, finding success and thereby enriching the city with another unique gem; the fact there are no clean tables to sit at, no polite small talk, no added ambiance, and no sanitation guarantee seems to the play into the no-bullshit, hurried New York ethos. But, truly, it feels unfair to intellectualize Absolute.
You don’t go for an ethos, you go for a perfect bagel.