Lying 300 miles west of New York City, Buffalo is a very different town in nearly all regards. As the gateway to the nation’s Rust Belt, this Lake Erie metropolis has suffered economically over the last few decades, but now seems to be on the upswing. A renewed interest in Nickel City food constitutes part of that resurgence. Buffalo’s classic sandwich beef on weck is being served here in a dozen venues, as red-lacquered chicken wings continue to fly out of the fryer as Gotham’s favorite bar snack. Perhaps even more persuasively, a new lunch counter has opened in Ditmas Park that specializes in Buffalo’s sometimes startling cuisine.
Seating is limited to a few stools along an orange Formica counter that angles around the interior — though most patrons opt for carryout or delivery. Pennants and other memorabilia for the Bills, Sabres, and more obscure sports teams provide decoration. Painted in a rainbow of colors, a Buffalo skyline covers an entire wall, while menus featuring Buffalo food specialties dominate two others. One offers 50 thick milkshakes concocted with Perry’s ice cream, made in Akron, New York, a small town in the dairy country northeast of Buffalo, almost close enough to be a ‘burb.
One shelf features a solid yellow row of Weber’s mustard squeeze bottles, flaunting Buffalo’s signature condiment. Don’t expect mayonnaise or Miracle Whip here. Another shelf displays sodas associated with the city, one flavored with loganberry, a 19th-century cross between a blackberry and a raspberry. The brand is PJ’s Crystal Beach, first served at a now-defunct Buffalo amusement park of the same name. Non-carbonated and non-caffeinated, it doesn’t fizz when you open the bottle. If you fall in love with the flavor, you can also get a milkshake made with loganberry syrup ($6). I think the chocolate shake is much better; in fact, it’s one of the best in Brooklyn.
One glance around the room will convince anyone that Buffalo has much to offer as a foodie destination.
One glance around the room will convince anyone that Buffalo has much to offer as a foodie destination, which is presumably the whole point of the place. As befits the stadium and bar food the menu represents, vegetables are in very short supply. But what about the wings? Available mild, medium, hot, or extra hot, in batches of 5 ($7) to 50 ($50), they verge on the spectacular (though extra hot was not very hot on one occasion). But aren’t all wings pretty much the same? These, according to a guy I spoke to at the counter, have been re-crisped on the grill after being dipped in hot sauce. This increases the density and gloppiness of the coating, while also making it crunchier.
Hot roast beef sandwiches ($7) are also available — a good wad of thin-sliced meat on a roll called a kimmelweck (or kummelweck), brought to Buffalo by a German baker around 1890. The roll has salt and caraway seeds on top, and thus tastes something like a pretzel. It’s called "weck" for short, making the sandwich’s nickname "beef on weck." This being New York City, the sandwich size is more meager than the ones I’ve eaten in Buffalo, and the meat a bit overcooked. The sandwich rocks nonetheless, especially if you load it up with the optional horseradish.
The grilled hot dog ($3) is a thing of beauty, in this case deploying a frank made by Sahlen Packing Company, a Buffalo company founded in 1869. Filled with a beef/pork mixture, the natural-casing wieners are delicious, though more floppy and less firm-skinned than their New York City counterparts. Don’t hesitate to go "all the way" with the toppings, which include dill pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, chopped raw onions, ketchup, and, of course, that horeradish-spiked Weber’s mustard. It makes a better substitute for the Chicago red hot than most that go by that name in the five boroughs.
Not sure if it really fits in the Buffalo canon, but the fried bologna sandwich ($6) constitutes one of the better choices on the bill of fare: irregular, garlic-laced slices warmed until they begin to singe on the griddle, then heaped with sautéed peppers and onions like an Italian sausage sandwich at a street fair. There are also hamburgers and chicken-finger subs, decent French fries, distinguished beer-batter onion rings, and (what now, Buffalo?) fried pierogies, of which the ones stuffed with potatoes and garlic are especially tasty.
At some point this crazy place was sure to go off the rails. And it does. Seeking to capitalize on regional food elsewhere in western New York, it swipes from Rochester the so-called garbage plate — which also has dozens of other names, mainly because "garbage plate" is trademarked by Nick Tahou Hots, the place that invented it. I won’t go into all the details of the present failure (the meat sauce, at least, is spot on), only to say that the thing is jumbled in a bowl instead of arranged on a plate, has too many meat options, and deploys the wrong kind of potatoes. Rochesterians will want to investigate this further, but the rest of us can be very content with an order of chicken wings and a chocolate milkshake.
Cost: Dinner for two, including a beef sandwich, a hot dog, and shared order of wings and milkshake, with tax, $25.
Sample dishes: Beef on weck, fried potato-and-garlic pierogi, black bean burger, famous plate.
What to drink: Loganberry soda, Mexican Coke, strawberry or chocolate milkshake.
Bonus tip: Serving Perry’s Ice Cream, Buffalo’s Famous also functions handily as an ice cream parlor for the communities of Kensington, Ditmas Park, and Flatbush, and is conveniently close to Prospect Park if the craving for ice cream strikes.