Lackawanna’s #3 tourist attraction
Curly’s is a lively place just past the Basilica in the gritty downtown of Erie County’s other hard-hit city. It began life as a neighborhood saloon, then metamorphosed into a temple of gastronomy beyond its founder’s wildest dreams when his granddaughter Krista Van Wagner and her husband Kurt returned to Western New York from a decade of Culinary Institute training and high-end kitchen experience. They carved out a dining room (at times precariously balanced between art and kitsch) and a dining experience with their justly famous jerk chicken and numerous lesser—and some no less wonderful—lights.
One of Lackawanna’s few booming businesses, Curly’s has racked up legions of fans along with multiple “best-of” awards. And it’s expanded as a brand as well as a place: countless customers leave with a bottle of Krista’s juicy jerk seasoning alongside the obligatory to-go bag.
Our only problem with a recent visit to the place was our placement in a gastronomic gulag—a dark back room where our party of six found it somewhat difficult to read the menu. But given that cavil, the food was good, and in some cases, great. The half Jamaican Jerk Chicken is justifiably famous, tender, splendidly seasoned, and spicy with Krista’s hot sauce. Go with that, start with the wonderful deep and dark black bean soup, and—depending on your capacity—finish with the unbelievably rich Chocolate Mousse in a Bag. You’ll be smiling broadly as they wheel you out, drunk on butter and olive oil.
You could instead start with the Guinness Braised Short Rib, but in our case the beautifully cooked beef was served lukewarm. A much better starter is the Peppers Margareta, spicy roasted banana peppers stuffed with goat cheese, garlic, and pignoli.
Seafood is generally done well here. The lemony Wolf-Fit Fish—grilled, herb-rubbed haddock served with broccoli, portobello and a balsamic syrup—will convince even the most diet-conscious that one need not sacrifice flavor for calories. It had far more punch than the delicate Low Cal Fish in a Bag, steamed haddock with vegetables baked in parchment. (I guess there needs to be something on the menu for the seasoning-averse.) The Cioppino, described as a “classic seafood stew with fresh mussels, clams, scallops, shrimp in a light fish fumet with tomato, basil, and garlic” was delicious, perfectly cooked and peppery, if a bit messy to eat. Ask for an extra napkin with this.
The food is always good here—and at times remarkable. Just be sure to request one of the front rooms.