There are no shortage of places in town where you can get great buffalo wings. This quintessential bar snack was supposedly invented at Buffalo’s Anchor Bar in 1964, and a classic recipe involves immersing the chicken appendages in a solution of melted margarine and Frank’s RedHot sauce. I won’t repeat the backstory here, but the inventor most often credited is Teressa Bellissimo, one of the original owners of the Anchor Bar. (Calvin Trillin suggests another origin story.)
As a bar snack, the wings have several things going for them. They are incredibly simple in concept: Each wing has been cut into two pieces and the tip trimmed off, so the wing doesn’t catch your cheek in its acute angle. Secondly, no breading is applied, and after deep frying, the skin itself does the crunch work. At the time of the recipe’s invention, chicken wings were considered the least economically viable part of the bird, and were often sold at a steep discount.
Now, chicken wings are gold, an essential part of any Saturday drinking bout or Sunday sports contest. And trying to reclaim its wing superiority, Anchor Bar has cloned itself in 12 subsidiary locations in cities as far-flung as San Antonio and Toronto, with our city being the most recent. Naturally, a tourist-saturated neighborhood was selected, in this case 57th Street just south of Columbus Circle.
A couple of years back, I paid a visit to Buffalo for the purpose of testing the Anchor Bar to see if the wings were any better that the ones I was used to at, say, the Old Town Bar. They weren’t, really, but maybe that’s because there’s not a hell of a lot you can do to either improve or mess up the recipe. The wings at Anchor Bar were made more special by being sampled at their reputed point of origin. Where food is concerned, atmosphere counts for a lot.
That atmosphere at the Buffalo original might best be described as “carnival.” Not only was the place jammed with boisterous tourists and tippling regulars, but trikes, motorbikes, and wagon wheels hung from the pressed tin ceiling, and every square inch of the walls was plastered with kitsch and memorabilia. But the wings were good, with crisp skin and a spicy, salty, vinegary coating that puddled under the serving for extra dipping.
Perhaps thankfully, our branch of Anchor Bar is not as lavishly decorated; in fact it looks like a franchise restaurant in a shopping mall, with scarlet walls, exposed brick surfaces, a soupcon of self-congratulatory décor, and big monitors in profusion tuned to sports channels.
As Eater NY has recounted in a previous post, there were no wings available when I went on Friday, the second day of opening. Instead, I was served something referred to by the waiter as “boneless chicken wings” (10 for $13.99), which were breaded chicken breast tidbits that absorbed the sauce like a sponge, rendering the pale flesh even soggier. I also tried another flavor called “suicidal,” said to be made with four types of chiles. They tasted even worse, and didn’t deliver much of a burn.
How could a place famous for its chicken wings have no wings — especially a franchise with many branches? You’d expect such a chain to be well-schooled in the science of fast-food distribution and preparation.
To add insult to injury, as I waited an hour for my “boneless wings” to appear, other customers, who’d arrived later than my companion and me, began receiving orders of actual wings. My protests fell on deaf ears, among a staff that seemed entirely untrained. I also requested a “beef on weck” ($12.99). This quintessential Buffalo roast beef sandwich comes on a salted and caraway-seeded roll of German origin called a kimmelweck, with horseradish on the side.
But I was told the restaurant had no beef on weck that day, either. Instead, I ordered one of the Italian-American dishes that constitute a major part of the menu. When the chicken parm ($16.99) arrived on its bed of spaghetti, I almost burst out laughing. The cutlet was small and poorly breaded, the sauce uninspiring, and the spaghetti so overcooked that it made Chef Boyardee’s canned spaghetti look good by comparison.
This past Monday, I finally got my wings and beef on weck. In fact I got them together on a special deal that offers five wings (mild, medium, or hot) and the sandwich for $15.99. The roll the sandwich came on was correct, but the roast beef was strictly Arby’s-style, with a rubbery texture and an odd purplish color. Ordered hot, the wings were good, except the skin wasn’t crisp, as if they hadn’t been fried long enough. The deal came without celery, and the dressing on the side didn’t taste like blue cheese.
I tried to order a pizza — another of the sprawling menu’s specialties — but was told, “The pizza ovens need to be adjusted before we start using them.” Instead, feeling lucky, I requested a patty melt, said by the menu to come on “Texas toast.” When it arrived, it was on a kaiser roll instead of toast, but it was a half-pound patty cooked medium rare as ordered, topped with caramelized onions and American cheese, with a smoky taste from flame grilling.
Actually, the burger was the best thing I tried at Anchor Bar in two visits, every bit as good as something you might get at one of the city’s many Irish gastropubs. And at $12.99 including fries, it’s not a bad deal, either. But who’d think to go to a Buffalo bar famous for its wings to get a hamburger instead?