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The Wonderful Working-Class Fare of Buffalo and Rochester

Chugging northward and then westward from New York City on Amtrak’s Empire Service is to travel backward in time. The decades fall away as cities arrayed along the Erie Canal slip by — Albany, Schenectady, Amsterdam, Utica, Rome, Syracuse, and Rochester — as you find yourself, forehead pressed against the glass, transfixed by the crumbling vestiges of a civilization that originated in the Industrial Revolution and persisted well into the 1970s.


You’ll be transported to a time when trackside factories dominated cities populated by a working class who fully enjoyed the fruits of their labors; for whom a lifetime job was guaranteed, two cars nearly a sure thing, and colorful casual restaurants an important part of living the good life.

Finally, where the canal empties into Lake Erie, Buffalo looms into view, once the largest and most prosperous city of them all. It was dubbed the "Queen of the Great Lakes," with Chicago acknowledged as king. Now fallen on hard times, Buffalo suffers a shrinking population and moribund downtown seemingly on the verge of an economic revival that never quite materializes. Yet its proletarian population persists, haunting the same bars, doughnut shops, drive-ins, and cafes that thrived 50 and 100 years ago, in a city largely uncontaminated by national franchises. Thankfully, Buffalo is the land that Taco Bell forgot.

BUFFALO CHICKEN WINGS

The city has made at least two signal contributions to New York gastronomy, one of which remains obscure, the other known throughout the world. There is something so simple and so right about the bar snack known as Buffalo chicken wings. It was invented at the city’s Anchor Bar, and that is where a companion and I sped as soon as we stepped off the train around 6 p.m. on the Fourth of July. Anchor Bar sits at the corner of Main and North streets just north of downtown, a garishly painted two-story structure flanked by neighborhoods of grand Victorian houses, but itself situated on sketchier blocks.

Buffalo Anchor.

Indeed the place pretends to be a biker bar, with motorcycles dangling from the ceiling, and walls lined with photos from the glory days of Buffalo. Anchor Bar was founded as a workingman’s tavern in 1935, but by the 1960s had turned into an Italian restaurant specializing in red-sauced pastas. Co-owner Teressa Bellissimo supposedly invented the wings in 1964, according to one account in Calvin Trillin’s Third Helpings (1980); he undermines his own story by mentioning that a black guy named John Young started serving something called mambo wings on the other side of town around the same time — even though Young’s wings were not cut in half, and were breaded before being fried and smothered in hot sauce.

Our plate of 10 wings that evening, the smallest order, proved magnificent. They had been fried in fresh oil with no coating, then dipped in a modest amount of Frank’s RedHot Sauce and melted margarine, so that the two substances swirled but did not fully mix. The wings were lightly coated without much excess, and a heap of crunchy celery was strewn on one side. Cups of bland blue cheese dressing were provided. We marveled at how big, moist, and perfectly fried the wings were, sinewy without being tough. "I think these are the best Buffalo wings I’ve ever tasted," noted my traveling companion.

Sitting in the bar (there were also three serpentine dining rooms, mainly occupied by big boisterous tables of Buffalonians), we were able to make some surmises about the origin of the wing recipe. We’d also ordered and enjoyed a plate of spaghetti with the Anchor Bar’s signature marinara, a tomato sauce flavored with onions in the Apulian style, but also showcasing oodles of mushrooms and ground beef. These two ingredients, however, were layered underneath the sauce rather than mixed in, suggesting that when the sauce was invented (by Teressa?), these ingredients had been recently encountered but not fully assimilated into immigrant recipes. In their simplicity and gingerly use of newly encountered ingredients (margarine and Frank's hot sauce), Buffalo wings suddenly seemed fundamentally Italian-American, though certainly also powerfully influenced by African-American cooking.

BEEF ON WECK

Beef on weck is Buffalo’s second towering contribution to the state’s gastronomy. But unlike the wings, it remains mainly bottled up within city limits and surrounding regions. In its best evocations, it consists of a wad of rare to medium rare roast beef (some places let you chose the doneness) with a generous slathering of white horseradish piled on a unique roll found nowhere else in the United States.

That roll is called a kummelweck or kimmelweck in the Bavarian dialect (kummel means "caraway" and weck means "roll"), or "weck" for short. Probably introduced to Buffalo by Austrian baker Wilhelm Wahr at his Vienna Model Bakery on Michigan Avenue near North Division Street around 1888, it’s round like a Kaiser roll, only it has caraway seeds and salt crystals on a domed upper surface, resembling some sort of mutant pretzel. Having this roll is key to making the sandwich.

Kelly's Korner's exterior and beef on weck.

After hours of combing through the amateur online reviews of dozens of places in Buffalo that serve beef on weck, we settled on Kelly’s Korner, an Irish bar of uncertain vintage in Buffalo’s northwestern Kenmore neighborhood. The bar proved to be a real dive, with four smudgy Formica tables and an L-shaped bar, a young bartender with a shamrock tattoo, and a shifting patronage of neighborhood characters who sometimes seemed to be engaging in nefarious business dealings. Nevertheless, as we scrambled for a couple of seats, we were warmly greeted by the bartender, who jotted down our order of Buffalo wings and beef on weck. Most other things on the menu came with mashed potatoes, which were also available by themselves as an entrée.

Vodka shots and chasers were the order of the day, but we settled for draft Canadian beer. The order took a good long time, leading us to believe the bartender might also be cooking our food. Finally the wings came. They were very good, immersed in quantities of a thick sauce, doubtless made with the same margarine and Frank’s, but here pureed into a thick slurry that the wings almost bobbed in. Three guys at another table had ordered 50, and it was a pleasure watching them demolish the order with such gusto. As we finished our last wing, the American team won the women’s soccer championship on the bar TV, a fact noted by few of the patrons.

We oohed and aahed when the sandwich arrived. Though it had seemed expensive at $8 (a plain roast beef sandwich had been available for $5), this one was humongous, and the roll, amazing. The beef was piled on as thick as a wealthy lady’s fur coat, the bottom side moistened by juices. Horseradish was provided on the side in a plastic crock. If we hadn’t been excited to try this sandwich before, this version sealed the deal. It was simply delicious.

BEYOND WINGS AND WECK

Parkside Candies.

One of the best food neighborhoods in Buffalo lies four miles northeast of downtown along Main Street in the vicinity of SUNY Buffalo’s old hilltop campus, long since replaced by a newer and larger one on the edge of town. Founded in 1927, Parkside Candies occupies an impressive corner storefront with big display windows; the interior is even more impressive, configured as a circle in the Greek Revival style with friezes, ornate free-standing light fixtures, and alcoves housing retail counters, kitchen, and restrooms.

Most of the floor space is occupied by candy displays, but a scatter of small tables accommodates diners and ice cream eaters. A brief luncheon menu consisting of four sandwiches allows the place to function as the sort of ladies tearoom that New York City used to have in the vicinity of 34th Street on the East Side. One sandwich is a dainty variant on beef on weck, deploying a small round Costanzo roll — referring to Costanzo's Bakery, north of Buffalo in the suburb of Cheektowaga. The sandwich is called The Main Street, and the menu refers to it as "a University tradition."

But Parkside’s main strength lies in its ice cream, available in 18 flavors, including Phillies graham slam, firecracker, rainbow sherbet, and the very modern salted caramel. We went for a hot fudge sundae, and it was great, with just the right amount of dense and chocolaty hot fudge, very creamy vanilla ice cream, and a modest fringe of whipped cream. Walking south well-stuffed, we decided to skip Nette’s, a promising-looking fried chicken joint with an ancient red façade, in favor of Famous Doughnuts, founded in 1938, where the counter attendant told us the glazed and Boston cream (filled with something like marshmallow, rather than custard) were the most popular. They were extraordinarily tasty, and gigantic for the price (less than a dollar apiece).

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Above: Famous Doughnuts. Below: Two hot dogs from Ted's.

In fact, like many working class cities, Buffalo runs on doughnuts and hot dogs. We found another excellent example of the former just north of town in Tonawanda at Paula’s Donuts, a more modern establishment at which long lines were in place around 10 in the morning, and the most impressive pastry was a glazed doughnut of red velvet cake, dense and damp in the best way. Directly across busy Sheridan Drive was a sprawling branch of Ted’s Hot Dogs, started by Greek immigrant Theodore Spiro Liaros in 1927, after having operated a horse-drawn hot dog cart in Buffalo on and off since 1913. The genius of the place lies in it offering several varieties of hot dog cooked over lump charcoal, which renders the links ugly but delectable. Walking into the Sheridan location, the place smelled just like a barbecue.

There’s a foot-long, a normal size beef-pork frank, and a plumper, redder, all-beef weenie, traditionally garnished "all the way" with ketchup, mustard, sweet pickle relish, Ted’s hot sauce, chopped onions, and a dill pickle spear, reminiscent of a Chicago red hot. Another off-the-wall frank features mac-and-cheese and crisp onion rings, fried to order, on top of the sausage. Not as delicious as the all-the-way all beef, but impressive to look at. A gaggle of customers was waiting to eat hot dogs at 10:30 a.m. when the place opened for the day. There are eight Ted's locations in the Buffalo area, and one in Tempe, Arizona.

ON TO ROCHESTER

We were on our way out of town as we gobbled franks in the morning, on a route that would take us through Niagara Falls — where we stopped to view them on the less-commercialized American side — and then on to Youngtown, on the far northwestern corner of western New York, directly across Lake Ontario from Toronto. From there we motored due east along the lake, impressed by the natural beauty of an area that was mainly flat dairy farmland, but disappointed at the lack of dining options. We were hoping for freshwater fish (on Lake Ontario, what fools!), but had to content ourselves with bad french fries at a wee tourist-trap town called Olcott.

Things started looking up, however, as we approached Rochester. Just west of the metropolis in Greece, New York, we stumbled on Schaller’s, an old-fashioned drive-in on the edge of the lake with a winking chef making the "OK" sign as its logo, housed in a low frame building with two dining rooms. This was our first encounter with Rochester’s amazing Zweigle’s frankfurters, made right in the city since 1880. They come in two distinct denominations: red hots (sometimes called Texas hots) and white hots (sometimes called pork hots). Both were specialties at Schaller’s.

Above: Schaller's sign and exterior. Below: Ground round sandwich and hots.

Rochester-style hots are typically served with chopped onions and a chili sauce that’s almost exclusively plain ground beef, reflecting the bland, spice-poor German heritage of the area. That was fine since it allowed the sausages to shine, the Texas hot with an emphatic seasoning and nice snap, the pork hot really just a bratwurst such as you might find in Wisconsin. In fact this whole part of New York State reminded us of the Milwaukee area, minus the Mexican food, which was nowhere to be found.

The onion rings were just so-so, but the hamburger, touted on the sign outside as a "Ground Round Sandwich," was excellent. As they do it in Kansas City at places like Winstead’s, the patty had been smashed down repeatedly so that it was imperially thin and all sear. Conventional toppings were simply yellow mustard and chopped onions. On the way out was a frozen custard counter that only offered three or four flavors per day, optionally incorporated into elaborate sundae concoctions. This custard was so good it was best eaten plain, and we were reminded once again of Wisconsin’s famous frozen custard, something we thought we’d never see in New York State (though the product was originally invented in Coney Island).

GARBAGE PLATE

Once in the city limits of Rochester, we concentrated on eats associated with the city. Most famous is the garbage plate, a trademark name that is the exclusive province of a café called Nick Tahou Hots, but is imitated at 30 or so other bars and eateries around town. It seems that no student leaves the University of Rochester or the Rochester Institute of Technology without becoming addicted to this strange plate of food.

Above: Signage at Nick Tahou's. Below: Garbage plate.

Naturally, we went right to Nick Tahou’s when we hit town, a stately red-brick building in the Georgian style that seemed to linger by itself among empty lots on the edge of a downtown that was nearly as moribund as Buffalo’s. In general, however, Rochester seemed to be in slightly better shape, with some of the old industries such as Kodak and Xerox still partly intact, a pair of vigorous blue-chip universities, and plenty of still-endowed arts organizations.

Nick Tahou’s was a depressing sight. We entered through the parking lot to find a faded blue and aquamarine interior with a few straggling customers, a quartet of grim though determined employees, and a menu that highlighted french fries, macaroni salad, baked beans, grilled cheese ("with or without meat"), hamburgers, hots and potatoes, fried ham, and a number of plain breakfast combinations. Founded in 1918, the place seemed fundamentally Greek, but having been created before the advent of Greek diners, far more limited in its lunchroom offerings.

That said, a sort of electric excitement ran through us despite the downtrodden demeanor of the other guests, due to being at the site where a famous dish was invented and since Tahou’s looked like no place we’d ever been before. The garbage plate was quickly assembled and passed over the counter: a heap of home fries cut in cubes, a macaroni salad not as bad as we’d feared and actually quite good in its unsweetness, and a pair of Texas hots split and grilled and then smothered in the same kind of "chili" we’d seen at Schaller’s — mainly ground beef and raw onions. The plate was awash in meat juices, and tasted of hot sauce at various points, though the overwhelming effect of eating the thing was astonishment at the extreme blandness. No oregano, no garlic, no black pepper, making the pair of Zweigle’s franks shine. Hamburger patties can be substituted and the thing still called a garbage plate.

Frozen custard at Abbott's and pizza from Pontillo's.

We spent two days total in Rochester, sampling frozen custard at Abbott’s, a famous stand near the city’s gorgeous Ontario Beach, a quarter-mile ribbon of sand giving onto shallow and cold Lake Ontario; pizza from the chain Pontillo’s (1947), which was thick and bready, available in rounds and in "sheets," the way they do it at L & B Spumoni Gardens, suggesting the Sicilian nature of the pies. Rochester is a city in which Italian restaurants are ubiquitous, nearly all of them serving the same ancient red-sauced cuisine that has become more of an oddity in New York City. We ate one evening at Guido’s Pasta Villa, where we, already suspecting what we should order, went for the baked ziti. Extravagantly gobbed with cheese and more cheese, it proved excellent.

Yet, as we climbed aboard the Empire Service (referring presumably to New York’s nickname — the Empire State) for our return trip, after scouring the dead-empty downtown area adjacent to the Amtrak station in a desperate attempt to find food for our journey, we couldn’t help but think that the eats had been better in Buffalo. Possibly, we concluded, because Rochester is slightly more prosperous.

The Restaurants

Anchor Bar, 1047 Main St, Buffalo, NY 14209, (716) 883-1134

Kelly’s Korner, 2526 Delaware Ave, Buffalo, NY 14216, (716) 877-9466

Parkside Candy, 3208 Main St, Buffalo, NY 14214, (716) 833-7540

Nette’s Fried Chicken, 3118 Main St, Buffalo, NY 14214, (716) 445-2457

Famous Doughnuts, 3043 Main St, Buffalo, NY 14214, (716) 834-6356

Paula’s Donuts, 2319 Sheridan Dr, Tonawanda, NY 14223, (716) 862-4246

Ted’s Hot Dogs, 2312 Sheridan Dr, Tonawanda, NY 14150, (716) 834-6287

Schaller’s, 965 Edgemere Dr, Rochester, NY 14612, (585) 865-3319

Nick Tahou, 320 W Main St, Rochester, NY 14608, (585) 436-0184

Abbott’s Frozen Custard, 4791 Lake Ave, Rochester, NY 14612, (585) 865-7400

Pontillo’s Pizzeria, 702 East Ridge Rd., Rochester, NY 14621, (585) 467-6900

Guido’s Pasta Villa, 1313 East Ridge Road, Rochester, NY 14621, (585) 266-2676

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