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.

Roaming Buffalo

It’s been a busy few months of travel, with long road trips book-ended by visits with family. Souzz’s roots are in western New York, where Buffalo summers are pure magic—temps in the 70s, lots of family fun, picnics everywhere, and cool breezes coming off of Lake Erie. The town is booming again, with a lively waterfront and a lot of new businesses popping up. Oh, and there’s also some pretty good food.

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Main Street at the turn of the century

During Buffalo’s early days as a mill town, a lot of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and Poland settled here–so it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are tons of ethnic dishes around. That said, the abundance of enduring family-owned restaurants is somewhat surprising–perhaps rivaled only by the amount of snow in a typical winter (94 inches…but who’s counting?).

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Beef on ‘weck

People seem to have refreshingly unfiltered opinions up here, and the passion goes right through the sports teams and onto the dinner table. Folks are generally agreeable…right up until you start to talk about which restaurant has the best beef on ‘weck. Different suburbs each have their own favorites, and they are all proud of their neighborhood place. Food matters here, a lot, and subtle differences in classic dishes are a point of pride.

Another thing that matters a lot are personal connections, of which there are many. Buffalo’s metro area is 1.1 million people–roughly the same size as New Orleans or Salt Lake City—and yet most of the natives have a connection to just about everyone they meet (“so it turns out that her aunt taught my sister to play piano.”). Western New York is a big place, but it’s also a small place. Perhaps that’s why there are so many thriving family-owned businesses.

With that in mind, here are six landmark spots that we visited on our trip:

Duff’s: This classic restaurant opened in 1946, and the low ceilings, dark interior, and mahogany bar suggest that it hasn’t changed much since–save for a few new coats of paint on the stucco exterior. My in-laws say that the crispy wings at Duff’s are the best around…and considering that the chicken wing was invented at the nearby Anchor Bar in 1964, the locals should know (well, chickens did actually have wings prior to 1964, but you get the idea).

Watson’s Chocolates: The Watson’s storefront on Delaware Avenue dates to the 1950s, and its signature offering is sponge candy, a very popular regional treat. Each piece is a chocolate coating over an airy but firm center, sort of like a malted milk ball (but with much better chocolate). If you are from the suburb of Kenmore, Watson’s is the favored place for sponge candy–but expect arguments from other neighborhoods that Parkside or Condrells or Fowlers or Alethias are the best. Your favorite place likely comes down to where you grew up; eat a piece of sponge candy from any of these shops and you’ll quickly realize that everybody’s right.

Federal Meats: The meatpacking industry was a booming business here in the early 1900s, and, while much of that has moved on, the city has retained its appetite. Every neighborhood has its own butcher shop with a friendly and helpful staff…and with prices that are about 30% cheaper than I expected. In addition to Federal, there’s the classic Broadway Market downtown, as well as Scimes, Hoelschers, Redlinskis, Battistonis, Zarcones, and probably a dozen more that I’ve never heard of. If I were an aspiring chef or a budding cardiologist, I’d move to Buffalo.

Anderson’s Frozen Custard: This modest little stand started in 1953 as a summer-only ice cream place. It’s now is open year round across several locations and with a greatly  IMG_4611expanded menu. The Sheridan Boulevard storefront is cleverly designed, with a window to take orders in good weather but with garage-style doors that can enclose the lobby for the colder times of year. Be forewarned that ice cream is generally called frozen custard in Buffalo, something my in-laws have never let me forget (I got a blank stare when I ordered “soft serve” on my first visit). Buffalo folks enjoy frozen custard year round, and it’s not uncommon to see big lines at Anderson’s in the middle of January.

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Ted’s Hot Dogs: OK, so how novel can a hot dog place really be? But Ted’s uses real charcoal, so things taste different here—quite a contrast to those poor dogs rolling around on metal bars at the local mini-mart. Ted’s was started in 1927, and even foodies like Souzz stop in for a regular fix. Yes, a hot dog can be (and is) a delicacy.

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Mighty Taco: This could be the outlier on the list, as it’s a relative newcomer (it’s only been IMG_4635open for 42 years) and western New York isn’t exactly synonymous with Mexican cuisine. I figured someone must have IMG_4644moved here from south of the border to start this place, but the owner’s name is Dan Scepkowski—and there can’t be very many Scepkowskis in Guadalahara. Regardless, it’s busy any time of day or night. And it is a pretty good taco.

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By the end of our visit, my stomach was full and my nieces were tired of hearing the word “iconic.” But there is something different about the scene up here–even beyond the friendly people and the over-rated winters. In some towns, food is about the latest trends, while in Buffalo it is a connector of generations.

Amazingly, and despite the twists and turns of the local economy, these six family-run businesses have been operating a combined total of nearly 400 years (an average of 66 years each). Show me a town with that kind of loyalty, and I’ll show you Buffalo.

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The harbor downtown, teeming with action