Yes, in case you have not guessed, I am originally from Buffalo. After you get all of the stinging quips out of your system let me tell you what Buffalo is really like. It is true that the press has not always been kind to the Queen City and it almost feels like Buffalo has enjoyed being the punching bag for the media. In reality, Buffalo is a very special city with tremendous history, unfaltering pride, and yes – even a healthy food scene.
OK, so the Bills never won a Superbowl and the Sabres have only gotten so far, but don’t ever try and tell a Buffalonian that these teams are not worthy. We have the right, as people from the city, to critique our teams, but other’s do not. We will defend them till the end of time (there, I got that out of my system).
Let’s talk about the culture of Buffalo. Many are familiar with New York as a true melting pot city with every imaginable ethnicity and race, pockets of ethnic communities within a city, and all of the food influences to match. Buffalo is simply a smaller version of that.
The area known as the First Ward is a thriving Irish community with bars and neighborhood eateries that reflect the heritage of the real “green community”. Allentown, although a mix of ethnicity, is a true bohemian artist community with a national reputation and an ever-changing landscape of bistros and bars. Just down the street on Main is the world famous Anchor Bar, where the chicken wing was born (they still serve the best). The area known as the Fruit Belt is the cities German community with its share of great sausages, pickles and beer. The Lower West Side is home to a deep-rooted Italian neighborhood and a growing Puerto Rican community as well. There is no problem finding some great Italian-American fare or influences from the islands. The Eastside is home to Buffalo’s Polish community. During my youth, the Broadway Market was one of the greatest culinary experiences with sausage makers, pierogi’s, fresh hams and lots of sauerkraut. Finally, the downtown area is encompassed by a vibrant black community with Buffalo soul food at its finest. The general make-up of the city is 52% white, 36% black, 7.5% Hispanic and 1.5% Asian.
The food scene is changing in Buffalo – for the better. It has been many years since I walked through the communities of the Queen City, but I still have vivid memories of uniquely Buffalo foods back when I was young. JaFaFa Hot’s was the best char-grilled, natural casing hot dog with their special sauce to be found anywhere. This was a treat when I finished up with a baseball game down at Grider and Bailey. A Roast Beef on Weck (a unique roll with caraway and coarse ground salt – not to be found anywhere but Buffalo) at Tin Pan Alley (some say it was horse meat) with loads of Weber Horseradish and a touch of au jus was truly to die for. Every Friday was fish fry in a community with heavy Catholic influences. Trautwein’s was the place to go for “takeout” fish fry – I can still smell the fish market. You can’t forget the baked Spaghetti at Chef’s on Seneca, even though it was not in the Italian neighborhood, it certainly was Italian. If you want to talk pizza, it has to be the Bocce Club, hands down, and of course there will always be the Anchor Bar for wings. Finally, let’s not forget the peanut stick donuts from Freddy’s Donuts (long since closed) on Main near Fillmore. You could watch Freddy’s donuts passing through the conveyor fryers pretty much 24 hours a day.
I worked at some great places where I developed my chops at an early age. The Statler Hilton apprenticeship program gave me the chance to work many stations from banquets to saucier, from the butcher shop to garde manger, and from breakfast to the hot line for the Beef Baron Restaurant. I spent a year at Shore’s Orchard Downs in Orchard Park (home to the Bills) and learned from a Greek immigrant who made a name for himself with his food. A short stint at the Cloister where I began to understand what it was like to serve hundreds of people prime rib and lobster, and even that diner where I received my first culinary exposure as an assistant short order cook at the age of 15.
The Buffalo food scene is maturing as young chefs are beginning to understand just what a special place the city is, how nice the people are, and how deep seated the culture. If you are a NYC dining scene fan you probably know about Gotham Bar and Grill, consistently one of the best-rated restaurants in the city for the past 25 years. The Chef/Operator is Alfred Portale who started his career in Buffalo. Before you write the city off allow me to make a few suggestions:
• Go to a Bill’s Game and make sure you tailgate with the locals (the best and craziest fans around)
• Buy a ticket to a Sabres Game and press your nose up to the glass (beer in one hand, local hot dog in the other)
• Take a stroll down Elmwood Avenue and pick a restaurant, any restaurant – they are all good
• You haven’t have roast beef until you have had a Beef on Weck: I like Charlie the Butcher for this delicious sandwich
• If you are a fan of wings- you must go to the Anchor Bar – it is the Holy Land for wing enthusiasts
• Pick up the local dining out magazine and read about some of the up and coming new Buffalo star chefs – they are all looking to make their mark
When it comes to my hometown I will always remain a fan and will always stay BUFFALO PROUD!
p.s. Maybe this is the year for the Bills.:)