Winging It South

Last week a co-worker of mine asked the question “so how did Buffalo Wings get their name?” If you’re from Western New York (or married to someone who is), you probably know that the classic wings recipe was invented at the Anchor Bar in downtown Buffalo in 1964. That’s a fun fact that I know only because of Souzz (I was born in Japan myself, so most of my food factoids revolve around wasabi).

The timing of my co-worker’s question was perfect, as Souzz and I were visiting her hometown this weekend and we decided to bring back a few wings. The idea was to have a taste test for my office (read: a good excuse to take a long lunch). We stopped by three of the better-known places, Duffs, Bar Bill Tavern, and the Anchor Bar, and we picked up some sauce, too.

We got a “double” from each place (a double is 20 wings, for those of you that don’t speak Buffalo), and I did all of my driving during a snow squall. Nothing says Buffalo like plowing through snow to get wings–especially when you are bringing them back to a town that shuts down at the first flake.

The locals say that an authentic Buffalo Wing starts with Frank’s hot sauce, butter, celery salt, and black pepper–but each place seems to add their own twist. Duffs are on the spicy (!) side, Bar Bill has a decidedly sweeter sauce, and the Anchor Bar’s wings are milder and maybe a little larger. All of these places (and many more) are pretty popular–and they emerged from a crowded field based on an empirical sampling of five in-laws. So you know they must be good.

The stakes were then lowered a bit when my brother-in-law Fred announced that “just about any corner bar with a 716 area code will have better wings than the best place in Virginia.”

In any case, Buffalo’s wings all got back to Virginia intact, where they made for a very interesting lunch at my office.

Our tasting criteria included appearance, sauce, crispiness, texture, flavor, and aroma. The various sauces were also hotly debated, as you might expect. And all three floors of the office building smelled like wings, which might not have been what our landlord (and co-tenant) had in mind.

After much (ok, a little) fanfare, Duffs was crowned the unofficial Virginia winner, with a complicated scoring system that would have made my in-laws shake their heads (again).

When I shared the results of our taste test, my brother-in-law Steve said “you really need to do this under more typical conditions, like late at night after a few Genny Creme Ales.”

I’m not sure our landlord would have gone for that.

Fancy Beef Sandwiches

A few years back, I wrote about the amazing food scene in Buffalo, New York, a scene that is partly the result of the melting pot of immigrants from back in the day (and by “melting pot,” I don’t mean the forgettable fondue chain, where $100 buys you an appetizer and the need for a cholesterol check). Many of Buffalo’s best-known dishes are ethnic creations like kielbasa and pierogi, dishes which are now competing for attention with more recent additions like Buffalo wings and sponge candy.

I’d of course heard of Buffalo wings long before I met Souzz, but marrying into a Buffalo family means you get to learn about a lot of other new treats. One example is the signature sandwich of Western New York, a beef on weck. The beef on weck is a Buffalo classic: a coarse-salted roll with caraway, thin-sliced roast beef, fresh horseradish, and au jus.

“It’s just a fancy beef sandwich,” I once blurted out from under my newly purchased Buffalo Bills hoodie. Endearing yourself to your in-laws is difficult stuff, I soon learned, and no food in Buffalo is “just” anything. Dinner choices often have storied histories and serve to unite generations–regardless of whom your daughter might have just married.

Weck is short for kimmelweck, a style of roll that you don’t see unless you are in Buffalo–or are in a restaurant with chefs that wish they were. The sandwich’s origin is hotly debated (well, maybe not hotly debated, but people do occasionally talk about it). Some say the kimmelweck was adapted from a roll that was served at funerals in Germany, and others say that an enterprising bartender decided to salt rolls to get people to drink more (Seriously? Has lack of consumption ever really been a problem in Buffalo?).

Regardless of how and where the sandwich originated, it is a Western New York staple. And the locals agree that the classic area restaurant for beef on weck is Schwabls, in West Seneca. Schwabls is on a non-descript corner that isn’t really on the way to anywhere, and yet it has been serving Western New Yorkers in one form or another since 1837. Its small dining room is perpetually filled with hungry locals that come to enjoy a sandwich or some other German-style dish.

I felt very authentic walking into Schwabls over the holiday wearing my still-new-looking Bills hoodie. As usual, the place was packed, with a lot of folks enjoying beef on weck as well as their signature holiday drink, the Tom and Jerry (similar to egg nog, maybe like drinking a sugar cookie).

Our server asked us just exactly how we wanted our roast beef, and she meant every word. Beef on weck at Schwabls is hand-cut, in order to avoid cooking the roast beef more with the heat of a spinning blade. The care that Schwabls takes in preparing each and every sandwich is in itself worth the visit. Oh, and Tom and Jerry were nice to see, too.

It seems that every time I visit Buffalo, I learn a little more about the food scene, and maybe a little more about other things, too.  My meal was great, my brother-in-law shared a lot of history, and there was some good local color, too. I may have some more work to do to blend in up here, but at least I didn’t order a “fancy beef sandwich.”