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New York State: Buffalo bar food

From its famous chicken wings to charcoal dogs, spaghetti parm and beef on a weck, the residents of Buffalo are proud of their contributions to world cuisine

New York State: Buffalo bar food
Buffalo wings. Image: Getty

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“God bless America,” says the huge mural of the Stars and Stripes on the side of the Anchor Bar. “246.8 million wings served,” declares the sign beside it, proudly.

Welcome to Buffalo, New York State’s second city but America’s capital of junk food. Buffalo wings were invented here — right here, in fact, at the Anchor Bar in 1964, when Teressa Bellissimo needed to improvise a late-night snack for her son and his friends, stumbling in after a night on the town.

But there’s more to Buffalo than chicken wings, as Buffalo residents proudly remind me. There are also ‘charcoal dogs’ (Ted’s Hot Dogs have been grilled over an open bed of charcoal since the 1920s), beef on weck (a spicy roll of sliced beef, gravy and horseradish), sponge candy and frozen custard. Even ‘spaghetti parm’ — spaghetti slathered in tomato sauce and mozzarella, then baked in the oven — is, according to Buffalonians, a Buffalo thing.

And they’re proud of their junk food — or ‘bar food’, as they prefer to term it. When I first came to Buffalo, to stay with a friend, instead of taking me to the world-class Albright-Knox Art Gallery or Frank Lloyd Wright’s exceptional Martin House, she took me on a food tour. Not that I cared, of course – it’s not every day you get to embark on a serious tasting of chicken wings to decide which establishment does them best, and which spice level and sauce accoutrement best suits one’s palate.

This time, I go one better, with wings for lunch, and dinner courtesy of Buffalo’s mushrooming food trucks, which gather every Tuesday at Larkin Square.

That’s not to say Buffalo doesn’t do real restaurants — innovative restaurants here are developing as fast as the city itself (which is currently undergoing a renaissance, thanks to a $1bn cash injection). There I was, thinking that New York City was the food hub of the East Coast, but in fact, on a 12-day trip to New York State, I found that there’s an equally strong food scene lurking outside the Big Apple.

New York State is big on culinary institutes — places that train up future generations of chefs and servers while experimenting with new food trends. The Culinary Institute of America is one of the top academies in the US, if not the world, founded in 1946 for returning Second World War veterans and located in an imposing, federalist mansion in swanky Hyde Park. I drive an hour out of my way for dinner there, but it’s worth it. I dip freshly baked brioche into a soup of stinging nettles with quail eggs, follow it with salmon with beetroot and trout roe, and wash it down with local wine from the Finger Lakes region. It’s simple, but perfectly pitched – I can see why people travel from NYC to eat here.

That’s not the only culinary institute I eat at, though. Even sleepy Niagara Falls has its own — it opened as a school in 2011 and added a restaurant the following year. The menu here is decidedly inventive — pork chops soaked in coffee and molasses, a watermelon soup with cream, Galliano and crème de cacao, and a salad of compressed pineapple, grilled avocado and jalapeno foam are among the options — but it works. I sit as night falls, the streets empty of daytrippers, and it’s just me and the rushing sound of the falls.

There’s booze on this trip, too. I’m not usually a beer fan, but Ellicottville Brewing Co (in Ellicottville, 45 minutes south of Buffalo), changes my mind with beer infused with blueberries from Washington State and local pumpkin. The Finger Lakes region, of course, is renowned for its wine, but it’s now developing a beer scene, as I learn at the Nedloh Brewing Company, a small brewery that grows its hops among the local vineyards. And even the Thousand Islands region — normally considered too far north to grow grapes — has a winery which sells potent wine slushies.

In more sober fashion, Rochester has a coffee scene to equal that of Los Angeles, with places such as Glen Edith and Joe Bean roasting their own beans and offering single origin coffee ‘flights’ and pour-overs calculated to the precise degree that best brings out the flavour. I never knew coffee could ‘bloom’, but apparently, when you make it properly, it does. The following week, in NYC, I couldn’t find any coffee shops to compare. Even when it comes to food, it seems there’s more to New York State than the Big Apple.

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