Eola Heights hideaway dishes bagels with a bighearted schmear of good vibes.
It wasn’t love at first bite. When I was introduced to bagels, I was unimpressed. Boring as Sunday service with a taste as dull as dishwater. Granted, as a redneck kid weaned on Krispy Kreme in the heart of the old ‘new South,’ bagels were just bad donuts. Dinner rolls with holes. Stacked in plastic sleeves, plumped with preservatives and hidden away on the bottom shelf of the bread aisle at Harris Teeter. Right next to the hot dog buns labeled as French baguettes. How times have changed. Travel and experience, my friends – they’ll blow your mind. Who knew the wonders of bagelry the world would eventually reveal.
Borough Park, Golders Green, Aventura. Neighborhoods that showed me what bagels could and should be; served still warm with a glossy lacquer that crackles under tooth, a gentle squish and maltiness that makes fast friends with any schmear. No, I’m not ready to add Orlando’s Lake Eola Heights to my list of bagel-famous barrios, but I am ready to softly sing the praises of its neighborhood newbie, Swan City Bagels. It’s proven to be the perfect place to get our carb on. No need to hop a flight. No need to endure grimy diner digs or semi-scripted belligerence (we’re looking at you Bagel Bar East). In fact, Swan City is one of the most genuinely friendly and laidback eateries we’ve visited in recent memory. A bona fide neighborhood hangout hopped up on feelgood.
Swan City Bagels is located in Eola General; a cute-as-a-button bit of building originally constructed in 1937, formerly a Handy Pantry, and recently (and very successfully) refurbished and stocked chock-full o’ goodies. Yes, it is an ugly duckling turned swan. It’s nestled in the heart of leafy green downtown Orlando and although only blocks removed from the hub of Eola-area retail and restos, it feels a world away – a residential glitch that reminds us of the hidden away haunts we once frequented in Midtown and East Atlanta.
If local is your thing, Eola General should be your thing. Coffee is from Wavelength, a vegan steak and mac ‘cheez’ bagel topper comes courtesy of down-the-street Dixie Dharma and Curate Art + Wine keeps it all flowing with a fantastic range of off-the-beaten-path vino. There’s tasting boards with local nibbles and shelves stacked with local honey, soaps, and goat milk bug spray. Let me type that again. Goat milk bug spray. But, despite interesting distractions, Swan City Bagels features front and center. As it should.
Racine Richman, or Chef Racine, is owner and operator – a one-woman dynamo and a wellspring of good vibes. You want proof? We’ll give you proof. We watched her jump in the air to execute a perfect heel click in response to a customer compliment. That’s some serious pixie shit. A tatted-up Chilly Wonka reveling in her high-gluten hijinks. Born in New York, Racine was smuggled into Florida as an infant where she eventually fell down the restaurant industry rabbit hole. Bagels were a family staple but in no way is Swan City a NYC wannabe. In fact, it borrows influences from far and wide, even including some down-home southern flava’ – BBQ sauce, Cajun slaw, Cheddar-Pimento Jalapeño cream cheese. Enough to give my imaginary Brooklyn bubbe an aneurysm.
Purists seeking bagel traditionalism should look elsewhere. Sure, there’s some tried and true, but very good house made cream cheeses include funhouse flights of fancy like Flamin’ Hot Cheeto, Strawberry Quik and chia seed, or a special of Nutella, chocolate and Reese’s pieces.
Whimsy aside, are the bagels good? Sure. The beigels? They’re even better. Toothsome, tasty, the tiniest smidge irregular (as they should be). We’re guessing they’re not baked in-house and likely won’t elicit fawning praise from militant bagelistas (what does?), but they do the trick. Here’s the system; at the counter, you choose from a range of 10 or so sandwiches, you choose a schmear, and you choose a bagel. Selections on our last visit included an everything, sesame, asiago, marble, and good ole plain – there was something sweet but why?
Assuming the sandwich you’re ordering isn’t egg salad, consider grabbing some garlicky pickled eggs on a stick ($4). Yep. Pearl onion, pickle-pickle, and magenta hued pickled eggs rolled in everything bagel spice and skewered like a briny s’more. Fun stuff that went down a treat.
About that egg salad ($8.50). It’s wonderful – we had it on a sesame bagel. It features hard boiled eggs cut into large chunks, mixed with lemon and capers and partnered with tomato and arugula. We’re a big fan of egg salad in all of its various guises and Swan City’s sloppy take is excellent.
Certain cream cheeses pair exceptionally well with the sandwiches, like the cheddar-pimento jalapeño with the Ultimate Turkey Club ($12.50); fresh sliced mesquite turkey, house made candied turkey bacon, tomato, arugula. A heaping handful of goodness buoyed by quality ingredients that will be ordered again. We’re gonna need a bigger mouth.
Munch enjoyed Smoked Albacore Tuna on marble ($10.50) even if shared bites revealed very little of the promised (and desired) smoke. Regardless, tuna salad bagels are heaven even if we didn’t find Swan City’s version distinctive enough to warrant it’s ‘neighborhood favorite’ designation. We’d order it again even if it had Munch longing for smoked whitefish.
Finally, the Super Nova ($13.50) featured dilled cream cheese, capers, tomato, pickled onion and cucumber topped with premium Nova Salmon – we had it on an everything bagel and everything worked wonderfully. The nova was particularly good.
There are several sammies we’ve yet to try but want to; a pulled chicken and caramelized onion, a brunch bagel with egg, a mushroomy mess of vegetarian. We’ll get there. We enjoy Swan City too much not to return.
Liquid bits? With display coolers full of interesting bevvies, there are plentiful options for washing down sandwiches. Despite the abundance of choice, we held fast with Wavelength Coffee cold brew. It’s available in various tastes, but we stuck with straight up and unadulterated. To us, this is among the best (if not the best) cold brews in town. Perfection.
So, what didn’t we like? The side salads. They’re inventive but lifeless. Watermelon and feta, herbed red potato salad, Cajun kale slaw. They all missed the mark. Haphazardly cut, limp from refrigeration, never really harmonizing. There’s an opportunity here. Certain places draw us in with their sides. After three visits, ordering Swan City’s felt obligatory. Even pickled veggies fell flat, plumped with mediocre olives. The ideas are right, but they need to keep playing.
Hate to end on the above down note, but there’s really not a lot else to say – Swan City Bagels is a friendly, tasty bagel-sandwich shop set in a cool little slice of Orlandia; a welcome addition to Lake Eola and greater Orlando. I suppose we could let you know there’s plenty of street side parking. Dogs seem to love the patio and we love dogs. That, despite urban folklore, soft water is not the secret to the best bagels (it’s technique; fermentation and boiling). Perhaps we’ll even let slip the real reason we scribbled this review – Swan City has an excellent logo and we want a free t-shirt.