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. Schwabls also has a friendly staff, a stately dark wood bar, local brews, and a lot of seasonal drinks, too.

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.”

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:

IMG_4679Duff’s: This classic restaurant opened in 1946, and the low IMG_4675ceilings, 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).

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Watson’s Chocolates: The Watson’s storefront on Delaware Avenue dates to the 1950s, cut_spongeIMG_4706and 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 IMG_4699candy–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 IMG_4724business 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, thereIMG_4667’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.

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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 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