There’s an old Jewish joke about an old Jewish lady. One day she’s sitting at home when all of a sudden she starts saying “Oy, am I thirsty. Oy, am I thirsty. Oy, am I thirsty.” Her husband, having heard enough of this, gets up and brings her a glass of water from the kitchen. She drinks it down, and then starts saying “Oy, was I thirsty. Oy, was I thirsty. Oy, was I thirsty.”
Now, imagine the old Jewish lady’s reaction to lousy food, and you’ll understand why only the good bagel places get any action in New York City. You don’t have to be a kvetch to appreciate the perfect bagel, though. It’s fresh and fluffy, with a light, giving crust. The way its poppyseeds stick to your fingers is divine. This is a real treat, and to get it in Fargo you go to BernBaum’s.
BernBaum’s is owned by husband and wife Brett Bernath and Andrea Baumgardner. Andrea had owned the Green Market Kitchen in downtown Fargo until 2013, and after a couple year hiatus wanted to feed people again. Brett’s mid-century furniture store proved the perfect spot for a lunch counter with 20 seats. The couple soon had to move their growing cafe to its own location before it could swallow the furniture store whole. BernBaum’s now resides at 402 Broadway N in Fargo.
“My husband is Jewish, and I come from a German-Icelandic background,” said Andrea. “When we were originally thinking of BernBaum’s as a lunch counter, we talked about specializing in Jewish food. But then we started comparing Jewish and Nordic cuisine, and saw common themes like rye bread, smoked fish, and pickles. We appreciated how well the flavors of the two culinary traditions complement one another, so we celebrate that pairing in our menu.
“We make sourdough bagels from a recipe that Brett perfected. We start by mixing together locally sourced flour and water, where wild yeast in the air comes to live. We feed the culture with more flour and water twice a day, and use it to start our dough. Once the dough has proofed we cut it, roll it, and let it continue rising slowly overnight in the cooler.
“One of our customers from New York was relieved to learn we make water bagels. They are boiled before baking, which gives them a thin crust that holds them together. Bagels were originally a street food sold from wooden dowels, so they had to stand up to being carried around.
“When we first opened, I couldn’t make matzo balls — they were definite sinkers. My mother-in-law, among other friends, helped me learn the tricks of a good matzo ball: how to simmer in stock at just the right temperature, how long to let the matzo balls sit and absorb the flavors, and to store them separately so they don’t disintegrate before serving. Matzo ball soup seems like a simple food — and it is — but simple food requires the most care.”
Having mastered the holy duo of Jewish cuisine, the cooks at BernBaum’s have made their breakfast and lunch spot Fargo’s premier destination for food just like Grandma Hila used to make. Go there for latkes, pastrami, knishes, or a bagel with lox and you might just break into an impromptu rendition of “Tradition.”
BernBaum’s modern fusions sweeten the pot even further. Their brisket sandwich on fresh rye with Wisconsin brick cheese, German mustard, and sauerkraut is one of their top sellers. Their Nordic lamb meatloaf sandwich on focaccia tends better to the Scandi palate with its pickled onions and lingonberries, and their vegan Reuben features carrots smoked and marinated to taste like lox complemented by shaved beets, krautsalat, Russian dressing, and cashew cheese. They have even got bacon and eggs, a dish that unites the world in its sizzling, yolky perfection.
An article will never do a place like BernBaum’s justice. Go there yourself and see, or visit bernbaums.com to learn more.
By David Scheller