“We have a lot of East Coast people who come in here,” says Kal Salih, readily called Kal, but perhaps better known as The Bagel Man, which he calls his bagel shop located in an unassuming Ahwatukee strip mall. It shares a name with his first bagel shop, which is still open today in Hightstown, New Jersey, and run by his brother.
“I opened that one in the winter of 1994,” he says, stressing the word “winter” as he gazes through his shop’s windows into the parking lot, already warm from the morning sun.
“We even have people from Hightstown who live here now, and they come to eat my bagels,” says Kal, matter-of-factly.
The Bagel Man has been open for four years, tucked into the foothills of this Phoenix neighborhood, acting more as pit stop than hangout. Like back in Jersey, most guests in Kal’s shop are on their way to work.
Photo by Mark Lipczynski
“Some of these people used to have their relatives back home ship them bagels,” says Kal, who goes through nearly 60 pounds of shop-made cream cheese every day. “They don’t do that anymore.”
The Bagel Man sells more “everything” bagels than anything else, but Kal has a soft spot for the cinnamon raisin bagel. What does he consider the perfect bagel?
“Crispy. Shiny.” Kal thinks for a moment. “Chewy.”
For Kal, striving for bagel perfection means not cutting corners. While he tweaked his recipe to fit Arizona’s climate, the bagels are still boiled. Still finished by baking inside of a revolving oven.
“It’s the old-fashioned way,” he says. “We do everything from scratch.”
Many bagel connoisseurs think New York City’s tap water is what makes bagels there special. Science has mostly debunked this. At the same time bagel bakers began drifting away from New York to head west, the convenience of an increasingly streamlined food system led to corner-cutting changes in most bagel recipes.
“I’d have no problem with any water in the country,” says Kal. The people from Hightstown, he says, can’t tell the difference.
The shop even sells a treasured New Jersey product called Taylor Ham, also known as pork roll, although it’s not on the menu. It’s salty, somewhere between bologna and salami. The Taylor ham, egg and cheese sandwich could stir up homesickness in any Jerseyan, we’re told.
Kal has begun thinking about another location in Phoenix. “There are opportunities,” he says, to do so.
“Even if I don’t expand, I’m going to stay here,” Kal says about his bagel shop in Awhatukee. His in-laws are here. And, he notes, there’s no snow.
“I’m happy like this.”