Friendly neighborhood taverns, grungy corner dives, atmospheric shot-and-a-beer joints: If there is one thing we have plenty of in Cleveland, it's little eateries serving up humble food. Even if all you have in your pocket till payday is a ten-spot, you can still dine like a king (well, maybe just an earl) on fried baloney sandwiches, chili, or walleye, wash it down with a Bud, and walk away with change jingling in your pocket.
But every now and then, when the wanderlust hits hard, it's a gas to toss a few things into the old jalopy and set out to sample the common foods of another land. (And no, Magellan, Akron doesn't count.) Buffalo, on the other hand, is a good choice for a culinary adventure on the cheap. Just a few short hours east on I-90, it is, in many ways, a smaller, older, grittier version of our own hometown, a historically blue-collar kind of place, with sweat on its brow, rust in its veins, and a mouthful of melting-pot pride. But in its tummy, along with the perch, pizza, and pierogi, you'll find a few surprises.
There's a reason they call them Buffalo chicken wings, you know. And it has nothing to do with the American bison. Rather, the Anchor Bar -- a hulking red-brick edifice squatting over an otherwise mostly deserted downtown Buffalo street corner -- is the origin of the spicy tidbits that have become standard fare across the country. According to local lore, the Anchor's original co-owner and cook Teressa Bellissimo found herself facing a mess of mighty fine-looking wings and a crowd of hungry regulars late one Friday night in 1964. Rather than toss the meaty wings into the soup pot (her original intention), she was grabbed by a fit of inspiration, mixed with a bit of old-fashioned frugality, and instead threw the wings into the deep fryer, then seasoned them with a thirst-inducing blanket of butter, vinegar, and hot-pepper sauce, and served them up to her delighted guests. On a whim, clever Teressa added a fistful of celery sticks and a bowl of creamy blue-cheese dressing, and -- just like that -- Buffalo Wings were born.
So good are the wings at the Anchor Bar -- outstandingly plump, with crackling crisp skins stretched over rich meat and slathered in the classic sauce -- that the mayor of Buffalo proclaimed Friday, June 29, 1977, as Chicken Wing Day. Visiting politicians and sports figures make a point of stopping by for a platterful, and celebrities ranging from the late John Candy to Kenny Rogers have been spotted, belly up to the bar, gorging themselves on Bellissimo's creation.
Ten fat wings, with a choice of mild, medium, medium-hot, hot, or Suicide sauces, will set you back $5.90. Medium-hot was just right for us: We worked up a slight sweat, but it was nothing that big mugs of the indigenous Gennie Cream Ale, on draft, couldn't control. On the other hand, two tough guys at a nearby table attempted Suicide and subsequently spent the evening wiping their eyes and gasping.
What's Your Beef?
You have to love a city whose unofficial meal might well be a brew and a "beef on weck." If you've never had one -- at its best, succulent, thick-cut roasted beef piled onto a crunchy, salt-and-caraway-seed-coated kummelweck (or simply weck) roll -- you have no idea how really good a hot roast beef sandwich can be. Served unadorned, a beef on weck is perfect when smeared, tableside, with an eye-popping layer of pungent horseradish and washed down with a foaming cold one.
For our money, western New York's best beef on weck comes from Schwabl's, a tiny little bar and restaurant whose menu declares, "We cater to the nice, homey family trade." Situated on a street corner in West Seneca (a tiny hamlet just beyond the Buffalo city limits), the eatery dates back to the early 1940s and looks every bit its age, with its oilcloth table coverings, paper napkins, and time-tested waitresses in starched white uniforms. But despite the bar's thoroughly pedestrian decor (the bright spot being the vintage pink-and-green neon sign), Schwabl's beef on weck is a thing of transcendent beauty. The light, fine-crumbed kummelweck roll -- nearly the diameter of a standard salad plate and so well-coated with coarse salt and crisp seeds that it actually crunches when you bite into it -- is briefly dipped in beefy juice, rendering it slightly soggy and deliciously flavorful, then blanketed in hand-carved slices of freshly roasted beef in your chosen degree of doneness. We took it rare and could hardly contain ourselves as we bit into the buttery concoction, sided with a pile of authentic warm German Potato Salad and some very good, crisp coleslaw, all for a modest $7.60. For the unimaginative, the same beef can also be ordered on white bread, drenched in deep brown gravy made from the aromatic juice.
We are also fond of Swiston's Beef and Keg, a little bar in Tonawanda (another small Buffalo 'burb) that dangles out over a branch of the old Erie Canal. Swiston's has no menu, since it only serves beef on weck ($3.50) and chili ($2). Most patrons order both, along with a pitcher of brew, and help themselves to a big basket of popcorn from the bar. The roast beef at Swiston's could be juicier, but it is tender and flavorful, and the crusty bun is as good as any. We like to eat our sandwiches on the covered porch or carry them out onto the narrow deck and watch the pleasure boats pull right up to the dock.
Hot Diggety Dog!
Ted's Charcoal Broiled Hot Dogs have been a western New York tradition since 1927. Theodore Liaros's original luncheonette and deli has now grown into a chain of eight suburban fast-food joints (with a ninth location inexplicably set in Tempe, Arizona) serving a simple menu of all-meat wienies (footlongs for $2.75/regulars for $1.69), burgers, sausage, and hand-breaded, freshly fried onion rings. But those dogs (known to the old-timers as "jumbo red hots") are wonderful, right off the smoky charcoal grill, with crisp, papery skins and juicy interiors. Get 'em topped with homemade hot chili sauce, sauerkraut, or pickle spears, then chase them down with a big glass of Aunt Rosie's Loganberry, a locally beloved non-carbonated beverage reminiscent of red Kool-Aid. We are partial to the Ted's location on Sheridan Drive in Tonawanda, with its big covered patio, where even at 1:30 on a Friday afternoon, the line at the counter was perhaps 50 deep. "Ya gotta try these," smiled a portly old fellow in line ahead of us. "I bet you'll really like them." And guess what? We do.
Buffalo, not unlike Cleveland, is historically a city from which many leave but few return. Yet when displaced Buffalonians start comparing notes, sponge candy is a frequent topic of wistful conversation. An ephemeral puff of frangible spun sugar, gelatin, and baking soda enrobed in a really thick layer of dark or milk chocolate, the sweetie evaporates on the tongue like nutty-flavored cotton candy, leaving only the taste of fine chocolate behind. Several Buffalo-area candy shops make and sell this western New York obsession, but our favorite is Watson's. Buy a pound (around $10) for the trip back to Cleveland. Just don't be surprised if it disappears -- pouf! -- long before you hit the final tollbooth on the New York Thruway.