Iconic Eats in Buffalo, New York
Story by Bill Bauer
Buffalo, New York is nestled on the shores of Lake Erie midway between Jamestown and Niagara Falls. The state’s second largest metropolitan area (after New York City) is home to hearty folks who endure notoriously bad weather, yearn for a championship from the NFL’s Bills and NHL’s Sabres, and know how to eat!
Locals take pride in homegrown, original foods, some of which—like wings (not Buffalo wings, not chicken wings, just wings)—have become synonymous with the area.
For 40 years, I lived a few miles south of Buffalo. Now that I’m living in South Carolina I don’t miss the winters a bit, but I do miss feasting on Buffalo food traditions. So I make an annual pilgrimage north to savor favorites at local restaurants and tote home a carload of staples.
Here’s a list of the foods that I think sets Western New York apart. Shuffle off to Buffalo, seek, sample, savor and let the feast begin!
When you travel around the country you’ll undoubtedly see Buffalo wings on many a menu, but at Anchor Bar in downtown Buffalo (and almost every restaurant in Western New York) you’ll simply find “wings”—prepared along a range of heat and crispiness levels. In 1962 at her neighborhood bar Teressa Bellissimo took the chicken wings normally reserved for the stock pot, tossed them in the deep fryer, and smothered the crispy morsels with a “secret” sauce to feed her son, Dominic, and a bunch of his hungry buddies. Word got out about the new taste sensation and wings became a permanent part of the menu. Often copied, but never duplicated, today the Anchor Bar serves 70,000 pounds of wings per month using Teressa’s original sauce. Whether you favor mild, the original medium, suicidal, or anything in between, the only place to get original wings is Frank and Teressa’s Anchor Bar.
Weck, short for Kummelweck, is a soft Kaiser roll topped with rye, caraway, and salt. Slice it in half and pile a mountain of thin-sliced, rare roast beef in between, and you have the notorious Beef on Weck sandwich. A Buffalo tradition, the sandwich is usually served au jus, with horseradish and, for a little kick, another Buffalo specialty, Frank’s Red Hot Sauce. My No. 1 favorite location for Beef on Weck is Schwabl’s, a little restaurant in West Seneca that’s been featured in multiple travel books, several Travel Channel programs, and has won numerous “Best Beef on Weck” awards. The Schwabl family boasts a long line of restaurant operators in the U.S. that dates back to 1837!
There are all kinds of frankfurters and hot dogs, and then there are Sahlen’s, a natural casing or skinless wiener that can be purchased in Western New York area grocery stores. Sahlen’s hot dogs date back to 1869 and are on the menu at Ted’s Hot Dogs, a Buffalo tradition since 1927. Whether it’s a regular, footlong, or jumbo, served with chili, bacon, and/or cheese, and smothered in a secret family recipe hot sauce, Ted’s hot dogs are cooked over a glowing bed of hardwood charcoal. Theodore Spiro Liaros, better known as Ted, began with a hot dog cart, moved up to a shack, and today, Ted’s nine locations remain the “red hot spots” for Sahlen’s.
What is sponge candy and why is it special? Sue Valvo, owner of Valvo’s Candy just south of Buffalo in Silver Creek, explains: “Sponge candy is hard to describe. It’s a molasses candy with crumbly crunchy pieces and a harder crunchy piece covered in light or dark chocolate, and it’s a Western New York thing—probably because of the weather being so cold!” Sponge candy is made in the colder months when the humidity and temperatures are low. Emil Valvo, Sue’s grandfather, started Valvo’s Candy in 1919 and sponge candy has been a staple for three generations. These tasty, melt-in-your-mouth, bite-sized morsels can also be found in other Buffalo sweet shops with long family traditions like Fowler’s (1910) and Watson’s (1946)!
Tim Horton is a name that Western New Yorker’s know all too well. The NHL star forward for the Buffalo Sabres met an untimely death in a car accident in Canada, but not before attaching his name to a chain of donut shops. The donuts are divine—especially the maple glazed dip. Whether it’s a dozen donuts or a box of the signature Timbits, you can’t go wrong. Tim Hortons has 4,613 restaurants in nine countries, including 37 in Buffalo.
Mention Chiavetta’s and Western New Yorkers will ask, “Where are they barbecuing chicken?” That’s because Tom and Eleanor Chiavetta began catering chicken barbecues in 1954, and their descendants (along with a host of long-time employees) do 350 to 400 events a year. Rarely does a weekend go by that a Chiavetta’s famous barbecue is not being held somewhere in the Buffalo area. The chicken’s unique flavor is derived from Chiavetta’s own BBQ marinade recipe that Tom and Eleanor concocted back in the ‘50s and hasn’t changed since. Chiavetta’s will cater any size party but also has a takeout restaurant location in Lockport, plus the signature marinade can be found in supermarkets throughout Western New York.
DiCamillo Bakery is famous throughout Western New York for a unique Italian bread, scaletta, which means ‘ladder’ in Italian. It’s so named because the dough is shaped like rungs of a ladder during the molding stage. This 100-percent family business spans four generations; it began when Tomaso and Addolorata DiCamillo arrived in Niagara Falls from the Abruzzi region of Italy, opened a bakery, and sold bread on horse-drawn wagons. Today DiCamillo Bakery has five locations in Western New York and is nationally known for Italian Biscotti Cookies and other authentic Italian cookies that can also be found in national retailers like Neiman Marcus and Saks.
No visit to Buffalo is complete without sampling some ethnic food. At Redlinski Meats on Walden Avenue, world famous polish sausages have been produced since 1942. One of the first butcher shops in Buffalo, it makes over 100 of its own products, including smoked and fresh sausages, holiday hams, and of course homemade pierogis. Whether filled with sauerkraut, farmer’s cheese, or potatoes, this pierogi cannot be matched! The butcher shop has a little store inside and an outdoor restaurant grill. Polish treats are special around the holidays, so around Christmas-and Easter-time it is not uncommon to have a three-hour wait!
Bison Brand French Onion Dip, Webers Horseradish Style Mustard, and Frank’s Red Hot are made-in-Buffalo products that remain my personal go-to condiments for dipping chips, making sandwiches, and kicking any food up a notch. While these three Buffalo standbys are found in many Western New York stores, the best place to go is Wegmans, a supermarket chain that originated in Rochester and has several Buffalo locations. A trip to Wegmans is not grocery shopping, it’s an experience. Go once and you’ll never doubt how Wegmans earns its rank as customers’ favorite supermarket in the U.S.A. High quality meats, fresh-caught seafood, deli products and imported cheeses, international foods, dairy, frozen, and household items, ready-to-eat foods and mind-blowing ingredients, Wegmans has it all and more.
Plan A Trip
An insider’s argument for planning a visit during football season…
Sports, food, history and culture merge several times a year in the suburb of Orchard Park, home to the Buffalo Bills NFL football team. On Sundays during football season, tens of thousands of Western New Yorkers gather to suppor ta team that’s made the playoffs once in the last 17 years. Stroll through the parking lot tailgates and you will undoubtedly find many of Buffalo’s unique famous foods: Chiavetta’s Chicken, Sahlens Hot Dogs with Webers Mustard, beef on weck, chicken wings with Franks Red Hot, chips with Bison Brand Dip, and sausage to name just a few. Kathleen Chiavetta says it best, “Buffalo is the city of good neighbors and with a block party 70,000 strong, it’s easy to see why you might be able to take the people out of Buffalo, but you’ll never take Buffalo out of the people!”