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How Lewisville Became the Bagel Capital of America

One man's obsessive quest to restore a bread to its Jewish roots is transforming North Texas food culture—and beating New York's bagels on their home turf.
| |Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Starship Bagel founder Oren Salomon
Starship Bagel founder Oren Salomon is driven. “I will keep trying to make this bagel better forever.” Elizabeth Lavin

The first time I meet Oren Salomon, he is teaching a class about bagels. That is not his job, and he is not in a classroom. But he knew I was coming, so he prepared a lesson plan.

We’re sitting at a sidewalk table in front of the downtown Dallas location of his business, Starship Bagel. Salomon gestures at a tray of three bagels, all plain, one of them sliced. Next to those bagels is a variety of schmears in little sample cups: green olive, fermented jalapeño, parsley, honey and toasted almonds, garden veggie. But schmear is not taught on the first day. That’s later in the term.

“To me, any discussion about bagels has got to start off with the plain bagel,” Salomon begins. (It’s only the third sentence he’s said to me, after how-are-you and let’s-sit-down.) “The basic form tells you everything about the commitment to the craft, because if you’re relying on bells and whistles, or extra ingredients, or fusion, or things that are anything but the core product to stake your claim to quality, that’s going to be clear here. If anyone does put in effort to do a great product, it’s also going to be clear. I’m seeking the most basic form, the purest form of the thing.”

We each pick up a plain, unsliced bagel. “The first thing is, you’re gonna look at the crust,” Salomon says. “See all the little bubbles?” There are tiny, flat, white specks all around the bagel, like craters on a bready moon. “That’s evidence of the fermentation, that the air was trying to escape. Then you’ve got the cornmeal on the bottom, showing you that it was proofed on boards, that it was made by hand instead of by machine.” He picks up the sliced bagel, taking its halves apart like a cross-section diagram in a textbook. “You’ve got evidence of the high-gluten flour—small air pockets—but everything around them is tightly formed. A lot of times you’ll see ones that are more airy, but then the bubbles will be big throughout. That’s not good. That’s evidence of using either bread flour or all-purpose flour. It’s going to be way more like a baguette, and that’s not the point of this bread.”

An eruption of cheers stopped Silverman midword. Starship Bagel had trounced New York’s finest bakeries on their home turf.

Chew on that phrase for a moment: the point of this bread. It’s a sudden philosophical turn in a class that will go much deeper than baking technique. We don’t often think of food as having a point, and bagels certainly make one. They are a deeply Jewish food. They are a product of poverty and oppression, a symbol of resistance. They stand defiantly apart from other breads in shape, texture, and use. But bagels have also been stripped of their history and context and are now a foodstuff—like burritos or pizza—considered the property of everybody, to make as well or as poorly as they like, to use as traditionally or oddly as pleases them.

Salomon still remembers the point of a bagel, which is why his company makes a very good one. That’s not just my opinion. Last year, he and the Starship team flew east to attend New York BagelFest and prepare some samples for a panel of expert judges.

At the awards ceremony, Sam Silverman, founder of BagelFest and NYC Bagel Tours, introduced the judges’ verdicts with a speech: “It was super tight up through third place. Second, there was a bit of a gap, and first even more so. This shop ran away with the best bagel competition. It is not a shop from the local region. The best bagel at the 2023 BagelFest, from Dallas, T—”

An eruption of cheers stopped Silverman midword. Starship Bagel had trounced New York’s finest bakeries on their home turf.

If you pay attention during bagel class, you’ll understand why.

“Ultimately what you’re looking for is the contrast between the exterior and the interior,” Salomon says at our sidewalk table. “Bagel has a unique version of both of those.” (He often drops “the” from the start of sentences.) “What you’re looking for is a nice, crispy, crunchy exterior and a very soft but chewy interior. Both of them are going to fight you in a different way. One of them is gonna fight you with that tooth, being able to bite through it. The inside, you’ll be able to land all your bites, but they’re gonna take a while.”

At almost every bagel shop in America, the bread is a canvas for schmear, lox, and a cascade of sandwich fixings. Starship is different. “Most other bagel makers don’t consider this to be their art form,” Salomon says, holding up his plain, unsliced bagel. “They consider the sandwich that they make with it to be the thing that they’re selling.”

We reach the moment in class when we will, finally, tear a piece off our bagels. The sense of buildup is palpable. It’s like the moment in the movie right before the main characters finally kiss. I take the first bite, and the bagel slows me down. That crisp exterior Salomon strives for—a deep, burnished gold, so dark that he borrows the language of barbecue and calls it a smoke ring—encourages you to eat more thoughtfully. I take one bite, savor, and rest for a moment. Just as Salomon promised, the inside of the bagel is full of tiny air bubbles. But it’s still firm. Push and it pushes back.

Salomon has tasted his bite, too. He examines it closely. “My little quest was around getting what I considered to be a perfect bagel,” he says. “And I wouldn’t say that I’m there yet. There’s always room to improve, but I think that my bagel has all the things that you would look for. Now it’s about consistency in size, proofing, dialing it into being a more precise product.”

In person, Salomon is endearingly sincere. He seems unable to stop explaining himself. The thoughts pour out, but they’re not impulsive; they are, like bagels, things he has spent a lifetime thinking about. This sincerity comes across through his internet presence, too. After winning at BagelFest, Salomon posted this on Facebook: “Being the best is not an accomplishment, it’s a responsibility. Being the best is not a state of being or an essence, it is a status … . [I]t cannot be experienced since it lives in the minds of others. So when people ask me ‘how does it feel to be named the best bagel?’, there is no feeling of being the best. There is only a feeling of wanting to do better.” 

Growing up in North Dallas, Salomon fostered a love for bagels even though he ate most of them while visiting family in the New York region. They were his favorite food, but he mostly avoided Dallas’ bagels. He didn’t train as a baker, either; he ran a coworking space in downtown Dallas. Then he got disrupted. “WeWork opened next door and engaged in their full suite of anti-competitive practices, and I was suddenly out of business,” he says. (By coincidence, the downtown Starship is just down the block from his old coworking studio, across from Tony Tasset’s notorious Eye sculpture. “I live in a Dalí painting. I’ve got my present, my future, and my past right here—and a giant eyeball contemplating all of it.”)

When his business went bust, he decided to take some time to focus on a passion project: bagels. The hobby escalated quickly. “I had friends over to try them,” he says, “and they put money on the table and forced me to take it and said, ‘You’re our bagel guy now. You’re making us bagels next week.’ I did that, and then they told their friends, and I ran out of space in my kitchen. I was like, ‘This is fun; this is awesome. I obviously don’t know what I’m doing, but people like the product and no one’s gotten sick so far, so let’s keep going.’ ”

A friend started a coworking space in a church and offered Salomon the church’s kitchen. For a while, he ran a delivery service, Oren’s Bagels, baking by day and delivering at night. He also made bagels in other kitchens, but the super tough dough caused problems of its own. “I had some people who wanted me to do bagels in their home environment, and I think I broke three KitchenAid mixers.”

The bigger problem was that Salomon didn’t know his next move. “I didn’t have the ability to take the next step,” he says. “This is a consistent theme with passionate, technical founders. ‘I’ve got this skill.’ Yeah, but turning it into a business is a whole other ball of wax. I got intimidated by that.”

For two years, Salomon worked in commercial real estate, making money but missing his evening delivery runs. In late 2019, he got back into the game, apprenticing at Boichik Bagels in Berkeley, where founder Emily Winston’s commitment to craft had earned her a New York Times feature declaring that the best New York-style bagels were in California. At Boichik, Salomon learned to make bagels not by the dozen but by the thousand.

Next he traveled to New York and Montreal to decide what kind of bagel his bakery would serve. (Montreal’s biggest difference is in habits. Customers visit all day and night to get the hottest, freshest product from 24-hour bakeries. Culture is harder to replicate than recipes.) Then came the coronavirus and lockdown. Salomon was getting ready to open his “dream bagel shop” in North Dallas, near the neighborhood where he grew up, but instead returned his investors’ money. Then his father’s Lewisville restaurant closed. The lease was available. The space was ready for move-in. When Starship Bagel opened its doors, Salomon was boiling his bagels in a deep fryer and baking them in a convection oven. This spring, his North Dallas “dream bagel shop” will finally open at the corner of Hillcrest and Arapaho roads. Like the downtown Starship, it will serve bagels baked in Lewisville; unlike downtown, there will be plenty of room to sit and linger.

That’s the immediate backstory. The more fascinating story is how Salomon’s history relates to the bagel’s. His family ate bagels the traditional way: as a bread roll, tearing pieces off bite by bite, adding schmear on each individual chunk. They didn’t slice them, toast them, or make sandwiches. This is how Jews ate bagels before the food went global. Milton Berle joked about the unsliced, no-preservative, no-lox rolls of his childhood: “We used to buy day-old bagels. They were so hard we had to hammer the butter on.”

At Starship, Salomon doesn’t much mind if you get yours sliced, and he has toasters, too. For a few chaotic weeks, the toasters were broken. Lauren Inman, operations lead at the Lewisville location, told me a story about a customer who requested a toasted bagel. “I had just got done bringing piping-hot fresh bagels up there. I said, ‘These are so hot I can’t even hold them.’ And she said, ‘But they’re not toasted.’ And she walked out.”

Salomon laughs the story off, calling it “Toastergate,” but it also gets at the heart of his project. Yes, he wants to meet Dallasites where we are. But he also wants Dallas to open its mind to the original, forgotten art of the bagel.

“This is a very informal peasant food, and that’s what it’s always been,” he says. “This whole thing was about getting around prejudice but also trying to serve food en masse. Everything about the bagel is designed to be transportable, durable—the survivor.” A sandwich is nice, but a sandwich is a different thing. 

The bagel’s origin is unknown. “Nobody thought of this as anything special,” Salomon says. Ring-shaped breads date back millennia across Eurasia, from southern Italy (tarallo) to the Middle East (simit) and Uyghur China (girde). Some historians think the bagel is descended from the German pretzel. 

Salomon has heard that the bagel’s boiling step arose when Jews were banned from baking, but the written historical record contains no evidence of such a ban. Former BBC journalist Maria Balinska, in her book The Bagel, could not find proof of ingredients or techniques being withheld from Jews. But the record shows that Poland’s Christian bakers formed professional guilds to box out Jewish competitors. In 1267, Poland’s bishops even banned their congregations from buying Jewish-made foods, though the ban was unenforceable and didn’t last.

Balinska found more evidence of the bagel as a cultural centerpiece. Her history documents how street bagel peddlers became symbols of hardworking poverty. An old Polish saying described the toiling working man this way: “He lies in the ground and bakes bagels.” Meanwhile, government bureaucrats coined surnames that tied Jews’ identities to their jobs, like Goldschmidt (goldsmith) and Zuckerman (sugarman or candy seller). Yes, there were bakeries run by families named Beigel. Even now, you can find a used copy of The Bagels’ Bagel Book, written by Marilyn and Tom Bagel.

By the 1930s, Balinska says, almost half of Poland’s bakeries were run by Jews. Bagel sellers on the streets had harder times. The government required peddlers to get costly permits. Most chose, instead, to run if they saw the police. A typical bagel seller could expect to make in a full day what a factory worker earned in two hours. This hard life was captured in a song from Ukraine, sung from a bagel seller’s point of view. Called “Bublichki” (“Bagels” in Russian), the song spread across Eastern Europe, was translated into Yiddish, became a hit, and was covered by American jazzman Benny Goodman.

But Poland’s centuries-old bagel culture would soon end in cruelty. “Because of the Holocaust, there’s no continuation of that tradition in Poland to reference,” Salomon says. In its place of origin, this food’s centuries-old heritage is gone.

Krakow’s baking Beigel family was sent to the concentration camp at Plaszow, where all but three children were murdered. According to Russian Wikipedia, Yakov Yadov, author of “Bublichki,” died penniless in Moscow in 1940, begging the Soviet government for assistance in unanswered letters.

Nobody knows the fate of Andrzej Wlast, the Jewish cabaret owner who introduced the hit song to Warsaw. Some say he was taken on a train to the death camps. Others say that he escaped the ghetto but lost his mind inside a cramped, claustrophobic hiding space and one day ran out into the street, no longer caring about his fate.

The Yiddish version of the song goes like this:

Buy bagels
Fresh bagels
Buy quickly please
I need to sell
For I am poor and lost
And homeless in this world

Starship bagel sandwich
The open-faced Millennial Falcon (with avocado and pickled onions) is one of Starship's few ventures into the world of the bagel sandwich. "I’m only comfortable building sandwiches that the most creative person at a bris or bar mitzvah could assemble," Salomon says. "Not to the point of gastronomy. Definitely not on a grill." Elizabeth Lavin

It’s a long story, how the bagel’s home moved west from Warsaw to Lewisville. Jewish immigrants brought their bread to New York and Montreal, and the New Yorkers fiercely protected their baking techniques with a tight-knit labor union. Harry Lender and his children transformed the bread from a neighborhood product to an across-the-nation grocery mainstay with a series of innovations: frozen bagels, pre-sliced bagels, shelf-stable bagels. That revolution happened more recently than you think. Benny Goodman’s song cover replaced bagels with pretzels. In 1969, Murray Lender told a newspaper, “When most people call it a Jewish product, it hurts us … . If you must be ethnic you can call it a Jewish English muffin.”

After achieving mass popularity, the bread’s use changed. Instead of a portable roll, the bagel became a sliced breakfast or sandwich loaf. Salomon has mixed feelings about today’s mainstream bagel. It’s not what he makes or wants. But without it, he wouldn’t have a business. As he puts it: “Does the average American know what pizza is without Pizza Hut? Does the average American pay $5 for coffee without Starbucks?”

Dallas’ current bagel boom includes local businesses such as Shug’s Bagels, Lubbies Bagels, and Sclafani’s. They’re friendly with each other, united against real foes like Einstein Bros. Bagels. The little guys’ shared goal is to turn Dallas into a bagel-loving town. “Dallas has the opportunity to develop whatever culture it wants,” Salomon says. “When people say, ‘Oh, this city is nothing but meat and potatoes,’ that’s not a commentary on the chefs. That’s a commentary on the diners. That’s constantly being negotiated.” This is why he’s heartened by Starship’s success—and why he wants to convert his customers to untoasted bread. 

“This is a city that produces plenty of creative people and sends them to New York, L.A., Nashville, or San Francisco,” Salomon says. “Then they do their creative things over there, where that city supports them. I didn’t want to do that. New York is a ready-made city where everything’s already there for you. The benefit of Dallas is that it’s not established, and that some of these things aren’t here. If we want to get them here, that’s going to take a different mentality. Dallas gets to make that choice. Dallas doesn’t need to be a city that hears about something somewhere else and makes its own version of it three months later to be part of a trend.”

A shorter way of saying that: Dallas often chases the feeling of being the best rather than cultivating the feeling of wanting to do better.

More curious, open-minded customers are one part of the change Salomon wants to see. He also wishes Dallas’ food media would give up its fixation on only the newest restaurant openings. He thinks some operators exploit our city’s obsession with the new by opening short-term cash grabs. (“It’s not even an ethical problem. Make it short-term in nature. When you found an establishment as a cash grab, you’re putting a shot clock on it.”)

He has even more advice for his old colleagues in real estate. He sees inflexibility everywhere in the market: in the insistence on large restaurants with traditional-size dining rooms and in the standard five-year lease, which ignores the reality of a fast-moving industry. He was asked to open a Starship in a prominent food hall, but then the food hall’s owners demanded that he keep the shop open all afternoon, even though nobody buys bagels at 3 pm. The hospitality industry, as it currently functions, discourages new talent from taking risks or being creative.

But there is good news. “All the people with money not knowing how to fix stuff, that’s a good thing,” Salomon says. “That means that they know they can’t bring about a different outcome either, which means that they should soon be open to other ideas. The [ideas] just have to be presented properly. People have to be able to speak the language of both sides.”

And Dallas’ culture has, he thinks, one big advantage: supportive, friendly people. Uncertain whether the Starship team would be able to use a bagel bakery to make its best-in-the-nation batch at New York BagelFest, the crew spent days practicing with a pizza oven at Dallas’ Pizzeria Carina. Salomon is grateful to pizzeria owner Eugene Plyako, but Plyako returns the thanks. He recently developed a pizza, the Nora, topped with Stracciatella cheese and burst yellow tomatoes, and he had Salomon taste-test it. “He’s very supportive. He said, ‘That’s gotta be on the menu!’ ” 

It’s not just colleagues who feel the love. “Oren doesn’t bake bread,” says one of Starship’s regulars, Lewisville mayor TJ Gilmore. “He creates community. The man loves his business, his customers, his employees, and his craft.”

Starship Bagel kiosk
In addition to the downtown kiosk (above), a new, larger North Dallas outpost will open this spring. Elizabeth Lavin

“This is our Disneyland of bagels,” Salomon tells me at Starship’s Lewisville bakery and store, on the second day of bagel class. You can attend any day you like. All the shaping, boiling, and baking happens in an open space, and customers are encouraged to watch.

The kitchen is filled with the tools that replaced Salomon’s original oven and fryer. He bought a gizmo that looked like R2-D2 and formed dough into circles, but the droid is retired now, in favor of a more sophisticated machine that allows for larger, more uniform breads. That upgrade took place between the first and second days of our bagel class, months after the BagelFest triumph, because even after the win, Starship saw room for improvement. The last piece of kitchen equipment that Salomon says improved Starship’s overall quality—not just its production capacity—was scheduled to arrive in March. A large, specially designed walk-in cooler enables long-term fermentation of dough in better-controlled conditions.

At one end of the baking space, I look at shelves and count 63 pounds of Sun-Maid raisins, 77 pounds of Maldon salt, and 24 pounds of capers. When it’s time to start a new bagel batch, an employee carries a knife and a huge sack of King Arthur Flour (Sir Lancelot, their high-gluten offering) to an enormous mixer. She tears the bag open with the knife and dumps all of it in. The mixer has a dough hook and a fixed pillar down the middle of the bowl because, Salomon narrates, bagel dough is so tough and tenacious that without the pillar to knock it back down, it would climb the dough hook and escape the bowl. For a moment, a bagel sounds like a felon breaking out of Alcatraz. The mixer has a sticker of Homer Simpson saying, “D’oh!”

From here, the dough is transferred to a table in piles the size of carry-on bags. Dough is usually referred to as a “ball,” but this is a shaggy, many-armed monster. After a few minutes of rest—during which it rises like a hungry swamp creature—the dough is hacked into pieces by knife-wielding bakers, then fed into a bagel former with integrated dough divider known professionally as the Scale-A-Bagel Bagelmatic 8000 and colloquially as a bagel machine. It parcels out the dough into portions, passes them down into a tube, and curls them around a metal rod that runs down the tube’s center. The rod does not poke the bagels’ holes. “Punching is a cheat,” Salomon tells me, “for bagel-shaped bread.” Instead, the dough wraps around the rod and meets itself, like a yeasty handshake.

At the end of the machine, placing the newly formed bagels on trays, is Gabrielle LaForte-Campos, who came to Starship from a job baking Eataly’s bread. I ask her favorite bagel type—sesame with honey almond spread—and in the moment when she turns to answer, bagels start flying off the end of the belt and onto the floor. “Sometimes I feel like Lucille Ball in the candy factory,” she says, catching one midair.

These dough rings will spend up to 36 hours in a cool, dark place, slowly fermenting. In the walk-in, each batch of bagels is labeled with not just the date but the exact time, no rounding. One says 10:57.

The next step is very short and very important. This is the boiling, which Starship conducts in—there’s no other way to put it—a cauldron. It looks perfectly made for witches, right down to the flickering gas flame underneath. The top of the pot roils with bubbles and waves. But the bagels’ dunk in this alchemical brew lasts about 30 seconds, enough time for malt syrup to coat the outside and for the breads to pop back up to the surface.

“It’s deceptively difficult,” LaForte-Campos tells me as she fishes bagels out of the tempest. Salomon, standing next to her, explains: an overproofed dough will pop up to the surface immediately and have a disappointing crust, while an underproofed dough will sink, become waterlogged, and taste gummy. There’s no way to cheat or batch-cook at this step. Starship’s bakers test every single bagel’s readiness by hand.

After their dunk, the bagels go into the oven, an enormous device with rotating decks. After two rotations in the oven, a baker reaches into the hot oven to flip the bagels. As with the proofing, every bagel is tested by touch for doneness. Salomon shows me one that’s pale and one that is deep gold. “These are equally done despite the color. That’s the tricky thing.”

Bagels are made truly one at a time. You can’t slide in a sheet pan of bagels like you would a batch of cookies. Each bagel goes through the process on its own time and must be checked individually. On weekdays, Starship makes about 1,500 bagels; on weekends, its bakers may prepare 2,500. LaForte-Campos and Inman agree that the old-fashioned, hands-on approach is the hardest part of learning to work here.

Near the oven is a wire basket full of odd, misshapen breads, some of them too dark, some flattened like holey Frisbees. These are the rejects. When I look closely at them, Salomon walks over to explain the flaws in each bagel, usually something to do with timing issues in the proof. “These would probably taste fine,” he says, making it clear that taste isn’t everything.

Near the end of bagel class, I ask a question that inspires the day’s final lesson. Does Salomon consider himself to be a perfectionist? The answer is immediate: no. But the reasons are varied and, like Starship’s connection to history, deeper than they first appear.

For one thing, perfectionists take themselves seriously, not just their craft. The second reason is simple, too: in baking, perfection is not achievable. “There is no endpoint,” Salomon says. “I will keep trying to make this bagel better forever.” Like an artist, a baker doesn’t see the profession as a video game that will end when you reach the final level. Salomon raises that analogy himself; shortly before this day of bagel class, a teenager from Oklahoma became the first person ever to “beat” Tetris, by playing the open-ended game so well that the computer froze at his final score of 999999. He thinks the Tetris kid is a kindred spirit, adding, “I kinda want to bring him some bagels. Sponsor him, I don’t know.”

Instead of perfectionism, Starship abides by a three-tier structure: bagels that meet standards, bagels that are “superstandard” (straight out of the oven minutes ago, which is only possible at the Lewisville factory), and bagels that are substandard. “It’s not about the line being perfection; it’s the opposite,” Salomon explains. “Instead of saying, ‘It has to be above this line,’ it’s about saying, ‘Anything below this line is not accepted.’ It’s about setting a floor, not a ceiling.”

At the end of bagel class, he tells a story. Starship is tinkering with pumpernickel, but the darker dough had caused its bakers some problems, so Salomon called a recipe developer at Boichik Bagels, Cheryl Lew. She suggested that instead of baking pumpernickel bagels, he instead learn how to make Russian black bread, a rye loaf used for sandwiches. He thought it was a distraction. Black bread is not bagels.

Then he embarked on the project and started encountering the same problems his bakers had with their bagels. Without the advanced tools of the Starship kitchen—with only hands, a scale, and brainpower—he was forced to think through each step. As his Russian black bread loaves got better and more consistent, Salomon started to see how its lessons could be applied to a bagel. His tools had been enabling him to skip the thinking step. Now, the path was illuminated again.

“That’s why I’m not a perfectionist,” Salomon says, suddenly coming to the point—the point of the story, but also the point of his commitment to Dallas’ culture, his ties to the Jewish history of his product, and the way that a piece of bread can make both of  those things stronger. “It’s not the dough that you’re working on. It’s yourself.”


This story originally appeared in the April issue of D Magazine with the headline “The Perfect Circle.” Write to [email protected].

Author

Brian Reinhart

Brian Reinhart

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Brian Reinhart became D Magazine's dining critic in 2022 after six years of writing about restaurants for the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News.
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