Cafe Society

Einstein Bros. Bagels: Little shop of horrible

Every time I leave Einstein's, I feel like I have just left a cathouse -- I'm sticky, covered with crumbs, and my wallet is considerably lighter...because I just got f*cked. About seven years ago, I stopped by an Einie's up the street from my apartment in Albuquerque for my usual Asiago Cheese Bagel with plain schmear, lettuce and tomato, and it cost a couple of bucks more than usual. When I inquired as to the price hike, the employee told me that extras weren't free. I protested the implication of my produce freeloading, because I'd gladly paid the less-then-a-dollar up-charge before, but the employee informed me that lettuce and tomatoes are expensive.

I needed that bucket of lettuce-slop reality thrown at me, so that I would break free from my co-dependent relationship with Einstein's and instead get my bagels from a local shop. And it worked: I never looked back until this week, when I stopped visited the Einstein Bros. Bagels at 1025 East Ninth Avenue (that's Ninth and Corona to you) to sample the new "Smart Choices" menu.

While I was ordering, I peered at the baskets of regular bagels behind the counter, and they seemed quite a bit smaller than I remembered.

The new menu items are advertised as "14 Options Each Under 350 Calories and 15 G of Fat," and include two Bagel Thin Eggwhite Sandwiches, Southwest Turkey-Sausage and Asparagus, Mushroom & Swiss; two Bagel Thin Sandwiches, Tuscan Chicken Pesto and Garden Herb Turkey; two Bagel Thin Melts, Cheesy Turkey and Cheesy Chicken & Asparagus; such Gourmet Salads as Chipotle Chicken; and two Low-Fat Smoothies: Ultimate Blueberry and Strawberry Banana.

I ordered all of these. I was sorry I ordered any of them, except the salad.

The salad was pre-made and boxed for grab-and-go, and it was fresh, crisp, visually appealing and Romaine-only -- no hint of iceberg. The chicken was cubed white breast meat, lightly seasoned and not overly salty, the toppings were roasted red peppers, tomatoes, red onion and a Southwestern-seasoned black bean and corn salsa. The dressing was good; it tasted like a smoky Catalina. Not bad.

But bad was coming up quickly -- the minute I unwrapped the first thin bagel sandwich, in fact.

While I understood that "thin" was meant to describe the toasted bagel slices, all of the sandwiches, breakfast and lunch, were noticeably thin on everything. The melts were housed in boxes that were disproportionately large for the small amount of actual food, and every single thin bagel on every single sandwich and melt was badly toasted, with inedible hard spots, chunks missing from the tops and sides, and burn marks.

The Cheesy Chicken & Asparagus melt was pathetically undersized, topped with tinny-tasting, precooked and reheated chicken strips, a few shreds of cheese, and the worst possible cuts of asparagus -- tiny, woody nuggets with no flavor. I had to spit them out in a napkin because they were all fibers and no juicy middles. The sandwich was also chilly. It wasn't supposed to be.

The Cheesy Turkey Melt was a joke that wasn't funny. Two stale, unwieldy bagel slices, a few drab slices of processed deli turkey, and a few strands of melted cheese.

I don't know how the kitchen managed to screw up the smoothies, too, but mission accomplished. They both contained visible globs of unmixed syrup and smoothie mix, and were so heavy on the fake vanilla that they were cloying. The blueberry one didn't even taste like blueberries.

The two Bagel Thin Eggwhite Sandwiches were filled with evidence of microwaving: cold spots, warm spots and spots in each that were too tough and dry to chew. The Southwest Turkey-Sausage was a mess: The egg whites were rubber, the sausage flavorless, the dump of canned green salsa didn't help, and the bagel slices looked that they'd been on the wrong side of a domestic dispute. As for the Asparagus, Mushroom & Swiss? The same horrible asparagus as the melt, I doubted that cheese had ever seen anything Swiss, and the mushrooms were a sloppy mess of cold, saline and failure.

The Tuscan Chicken Pesto and Garden Herb Turkey sandwiches deserved to be slam-dunked into the nearest garbage can. They were arctic, stiff and bereft of fillings. The turkey sandwich tasted like lettuce -- just lettuce. There was more lettuce than turkey. So much for my seven-year-old theory that Einie's delicately portions out its precious, expensive lettuce leaves.

And the saddest part of this hellish-hell-horror meal? The price tag.

Each bagel sandwich was about $5 each. I have to give Einstein's mad props for finding an effective way to sell half the portions at full price, and dupe people into believing they are getting some kind of healthy value. And I now understand why the chain keeps peppering the local papers with coupons -- it has to find ways to get people to return to the stores.

As for me, I wouldn't eat this food again if Einstein's sent it to my house with candy and a stripper.

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Jenn Wohletz
Contact: Jenn Wohletz