These are the iconic foods of Buffalo, New York. On a weekend trip to visit some friendly native Buffalonians (as they like to be called), these were the answers I got when I asked, "Do you guys have any other culinary exports?"
Sorry, Buffalonians: The correct answer is "no." While your beef on wek - a roast beef sandwich on a caraway seed-and-salt roll with horseradish - is tender and delicious, no one east of Thruway Exit 40 has ever heard of it.
Buffalo, your singular contribution to the food world is the Buffalo wing.
My when-in-Rome mentality mandated a three-day guided Tour de Wing. It began on Friday, October 17, at Gabriel's Gate (148 Allen St., Buffalo), a casual pub with high-backed wooden benches. Buffalo chicken wings were available by single ($8.95) or double ($11.95), which I assumed meant a gross. Rather, wings are traditionally served in multiples of 10, hereafter referred to as a "Buffalo dozens." All wings come with celery sticks, carrots and bleu cheese dressing - not ranch. They are usually available in "mild," "medium," "hot" and "suicidal." For this capsaicin-ophile, there was only one choice.
I ordered a single suicidal; the table split some medium. I sampled the medium for a control flavor. It was painfully mild but meaty, with a pleasing Frank's Hot Sauce-imbued flavor. Then I dove into my first suicidal wing, darker red with noticeable squares of jalapeño pepper. Hotter, yes, but not one tear. These suicidal wings were not living up to their name. By meal's end, I felt only about 45 minutes closer to death, which is approximately how long it took us to eat.
Through some cajoling, I convinced my guides to take me to Frank and Teressa's Anchor Bar (1047 Main St., Buffalo), which lays claim to the title "Original Home of the Buffalo Chicken Wing." Allegedly, Teressa instantaneously pioneered the recipe in 1964 when her son's hungry friends appeared around midnight demanding sustenance. My tour guides say it may be hyperbole, but a better story than the real chicken wing originator came up with. As a result, the Anchor Bar always has a line (even when there are tables available) and charges $12 for a Buffalo dozen of its suicidal wings. The walls are covered in license plates, and no native Buffalonians like to eat there because of the crowds.
We ordered a medium double ($14), a spicy barbecue double ($14) and my 10 suicidal wings. First, I picked up a huge medium roaster wing that must have been culled from some real Arnold Schwarzenegger of a chicken. It was mild. The barbecue wing was creeping towards dry and not intensely flavorful. The suicidal wings were covered in a thick paste of red pepper flakes and copious cracked black pepper. They were spicier than Gabriel's but again, no tears. My tour guide ate one; no one else would touch them. In a marriage of waste-not-want-not and machismo, I ate the remainder of the suicidal wings. It turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes I have ever made.
If one were canny, one would not eat a handful of cracked black pepper by itself, let alone another cup of red pepper flakes and Tabasco sauce, would one? Add to it the sheer mass of 11 voluminous chicken wings (nine suicidal plus one medium plus one barbecue) fried in oil and you've got an equation for gastrointestinal disaster. That night, I participated in a Thai dinner through sheer force of will. By 10 o'clock, I finally realized why they're called suicidal wings. I wanted to kill myself.
Instead, I sampled another local favorite for the first time in my life: TUMS Ultra Antacid/Calcium Supplement, Peppermint ($2.99). These chalky minty Necco-waferesque discs are pure perfection, soothing both screeching esophagi, writhing intestines and everything in between. They will hereafter be referred to as a "Buffalo dessert." I wanted a Buffalo dozen, but settled for three.
The next day, I mustered all my strength and headed to Duff's Famous Wings (3651 Sheridan Drive, Amherst) on the way out of town. Duff's is the pioneering wing joint without the Anchor Bar fuss, humble and no-nonsense. And their slogan reads, "Medium is HOT. Medium hot is VERY HOT. Hot is VERY, VERY HOT!" Unlike the other places, the heat-o-meter here does not stop at suicidal; it stops at "Death." I found this promising.
For the first time, I was not disappointed. Duff's awesome wings were succulent and flavorful, no matter how high they turned up the heat. My companion had medium, a paragon of the Buffalo chicken wing experience. I ordered mine hot with a side of Death. The lunch special ($8.95) was a Buffalo dozen and two sides (salad, soup or French fries); the portions were huge. As I dunked my hot wings into a drinking cup's worth of Death Sauce, I laughed. I had finally cried.++