Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen came roaring back into Five Points a week ago, greeting long Sunday lines again after a five-month closure following a fire. In the almost two years that the shop had been open, it had become a Denver institution: Owner Josh Pollack’s New York-style bagels, lox and whitefish salad are wildly popular with East Coast expats looking for a fix, and revelatory for eaters who’ve never experienced a true Big Apple version of these breakfast mainstays.
Pollack’s not taking a breather after his reinstatement; instead, he’s moving full speed ahead on a second Rosenberg’s in the Stanley Marketplace, a kosher venture at the Bagel Store, an Italian deli called Lou’s Italian Specialties, and a New York slice operation dubbed Famous Original Ray’s, which will serve out of a window at the revived 715 Club in Five Points. We recently chatted with Pollack about why New York tap water makes better dough, the most important factor in creating a great bagel (it’s not the water), and why you can’t learn this craft out of a book.
Westword: You grew up in New Jersey, where good bagels are a little more common than they are here in Denver. What led to your deep obsession with this food?
Josh Pollack: I always held a really dear spot in my heart for what we ate as a family, which was what I call “appetizing”: bagels, lox, salads, vegetables, cream cheese, pickles. There’s always tension when you get big families together. We’re Jews and Italians — it’s family first, but there’s always infighting. And then you put cooking on top of that, which was something my family wanted to avoid. So instead, my mom and grandma would go to Russ and Daughters or Katz’s, get food and put it out, so they didn’t have to do all that preparation. Appetizing was such a big holiday tradition. It was my obsession, my soul food, my comfort food.
Yet you went to school for business and finance. So how did you end up with a bagel shop?
It was both a fast and a long process. When I was visiting colleges, I was blown away by the University of Colorado Boulder. It was a little naive of me to think then that bagels are everywhere and so is pizza. But I soon learned that what the West Coast calls a bagel or pizza is not the same as in the East. So it began there. I went to school for business, but I said that day, “Hey, if no one else does it, I’m going to bring bagels and pizza out here.” After college, I worked in the mortgage business, but in 2008 I started to see people’s true colors. I was disgusted and started to think about how to leave.
My first entrepreneurial venture was in live music, with Green Laser Productions. Then I moved on to the medical side of cannabis. But when the laws started changing there, it was like finance — I saw people’s true colors. So I went back to CU Denver for an entrepreneurship certificate. I focused all of my energy there on Rosenberg’s. There was a competition at the end of the year, and we took second place, which came with cash and in-kind services like access to lawyers and marketers. That gave me a jump-start.
You’re somewhat legendary in this town for your obsession with your craft, which goes down to reconfiguring your water to match New York tap. Talk to me about your scientific process, and how you concluded that such manipulation was necessary.
I took these trips back to New York and New Jersey, and I convinced people at places like Ess-a-Bagel and the Bagel Hole to let me use the bathroom so that I could take their tap water and test it. I collected about fifty samples and had them tested at Colorado State University, and we saw differences between that water and Colorado water, as well as some differences between the samples. Eventually, we worked with New York’s water-treatment facilities — they are so proud of the tap water in New York. We learned that there’s no unique mineral in New York water, but all the minerals are at different proportions. We took that to baking experts and food scientists, and they concluded that the minerals would affect gluten, which makes a huge difference in bagels. You need strong gluten to get that crunchy, chewy and forgiving crust and tight crumb. So we’ve proven that’s not a myth: Water does matter.
But is that the most important factor in making a great bagel?
What does matter most?
Process and equipment are hands-down the most important factors. People like to cut corners. Bagels need, minimum, a 24-to-48-hour slow proof. It’s called retarding the dough. We do that in our walk-in cooler, which we keep at 38 degrees, which allows the yeast to form the flavor compounds. Normally, when you let bread rise at room temperature, it gets big air pockets. You want little air pockets for bagels. The most important step is boiling before baking. When we bake, we use baking sticks, which are essentially two-by-fours with food-grade wet burlap on top. Burlap creates a little steam for a couple of minutes, and then you seed both sides, and then flip the bagels onto the stone. This way also takes the flatness out of the top. Great bagels don’t really have flat sides.
What does the perfect bagel look and taste like?
It’s more textural than anything — it should have the right crust from proofing overnight and boiling. If it was boiled, you can squeeze it and it will be crispy as it flexes. It should be crunchy but chewy, with a light, fluffy crumb interior. And if it’s perfect, it’s gotta taste good. Flavor really comes from technique and fermentation.
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Out on the East Coast, people lament that the art of bagel-making is dying. How did you learn the old-fashioned way of making bagels, and how do you preserve the legacy of this craft?
This is how bagels have been made for 200 years. In the 1930s and ’40s, the industry started to automate. Before that, there were bagel-maker unions; they were all hand-done, and the craft was prideful. Once the unions disbanded, a lot of shops went to the automated bagel and the recipes died off. I grew up with the Shorr family. Grandpa Harold owned Harold’s Kosher Market, and his son, Bobby, who was like a second father to me, opened the first Bagel Emporium and attached it to Harold’s. Harold’s is still bumping, which is remarkable, because the kosher-supermarket business is a tough business, and not just because of real estate.
In the Jewish community, if you have a deli, you work eighty hours a week, and if you’re successful, you use the money to put your kids through college to go do something else. As a result, we’re losing that knowledge that used to be passed down generation by generation. Bobby had the same thing — his kids didn’t want to do it. I reached out, and he opened his doors. I went and spent a few months back there learning how to roll by hand. I learned from someone who did it his whole life. You can’t learn this out of a book. You have to learn it from someone who’s been doing it.
You’ve become a Denver institution, yet you’re famous for your New York-style specialty. What do you think that means for this city’s dining scene?
I think we’re a really good complement to what exists here. A lot of the scene is influenced by what’s outside of here. Chefs go to New York, and they travel — and they should. If you were focused on one geographical region, it would be a boring thing. I feel the same way about food I grew up with and loved; I want to share that. It’s not, like, we’re better. A lot of regulars are here because they’ve never had a bagel like this. Bagels are affordable and nutritious. They’re for everyone.
Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen is located at 725 East 26th Avenue. It's open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; for more information, call 720-440-9880 or go to rosenbergsbagels.com. Watch for a Facebook Live interview with Josh Pollack on the Westword Facebook page at 10 a.m. Thursday, October 27.