All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
On a bright day, the front door to Benny’s Bagels stays open. It’s afternoon, and a strong breeze — the Texas winter chill laced in it — tumbles into the Skillman Street shop. The wind stirs the charred onion and garlic aroma that's wafting from the onion flakes toasting as bagels move through the conveyor oven. It causes sharp spikes of salivation; bagel cravings come on as strong as a Hulk transformation. The best everything bagels will leave you memoryless and wandering somewhere in Manhattan, purple pants shredded at the knees.
Owner Ruben Gomez walks to a table. He greets a customer, someone he knows, and asks how she’s doing.
Gomez is 33 years old, and it has been six months since he took ownership at Benny’s. Business is humming. After the lunch hour, the line continues to swell and dissipate in spurts. My everything bagel rolls through the conveyor toaster — it’s Benny's best-seller for good reason — the heat spiking the air with garlic and the nutty seeds once again. Poppy bagels are as soft-chewy-meets-toasty as ever. Gomez was 27 years old when he started at Benny’s as a dishwasher. Before, he’d been a bouncer at a nightclub.
“I was getting in fights every night, and I just kind of got tired of it,” Gomez says.
After dishwashing at Benny's, he jumped into accounting. Business was good. Despite the changes over the years in East Dallas, New York-style bagels kept Benny’s on top.
“I knew the numbers, so I saved my money, saw the opportunity and jumped on it," he says.
Benny’s Bagels was once a networked franchise. The original location at Skillman, tucked in tightly at the end of the strip mall near Mot Hai Ba and the Beer Cave, opened in 1996. In the time since, each Benny’s location has gone its own way. The Skillman Benny’s hits as close to home as it gets for Gomez. He grew up at his grandmother’s house right behind where he shows up at 4 a.m. to boil bagels.
“Since I’ve got it, we’ve grown a lot,” Gomez says.
That’s about where his humble-brag ends. Benny's bagels are made over two days: kneaded and shape at night (it takes a few hours by hand), frozen and finished the next morning. Hours before you’d even hear a rooster, they're boiled, baked, and scattered with dried onion crisps or dipped into deep ocean-blue poppy seeds.
I’m sitting at a hightop table in the corner taking superhuman bites of an open-faced Pacific salmon: lox draped over capers, thick-diced red onion and housemade onion-chive cream cheese on an everything bagel. Choose a sweet bagel, and the Statue of Liberty will descend from her island and club you in the skull with her torch.
A tomato slice, bright red and fresher than you’d imagine for a fast-casual spot, rounds out the bagel with summer sweetness. The lox is tender and great. So are the everything bagels, charred at the edges and thickly smeared in onion-chive cream cheese.
“We’ve been doing good for the last six years, and we’re not trying to change anything,” Gomez says. “The neighborhood’s changing — we’re getting a lot younger crowd. But we embrace everybody.”
The line stacks up again, but the crew is ready. Some customers, those who have been Benny’s patrons for years, have sandwiches ready without saying a word. It’s exactly how it should be at a neighborhood joint.
Benny's Bagels Lakewood, 1901 Skillman St.