IN photos by Mary Machnica; all other photos except Vegfest by kc kratt
We like to say Buffalo´s a food town, but we also have to be honest and admit that probably every city thinks its food is special. For this issue, we drilled down on some specific aspects of WNY food, and tried to answer key questions, like: who´s making waves in the Buffalo food scene right now? What traditions are still important? How are newcomers changing what we eat? What are the must-attend foodie events and why? And what are we eating and drinking that we couldn´t have imagined eating and drinking a decade ago?
La Divina Mexican Store; Crispy beef torta; chicken taco, al pastor & a carne asada taco, all from La Divina
In the beginning, there was Mighty Taco. Mighty was the only taco, and the only taco was Mighty. Tacos were the stuff of greasy spoons and bright yellow boxes and the only choice most diners knew was “hard shell or soft?” Then, in 2010, childhood friends Pete Cimino and Chris Dorsaneo painted a truck Kermit green and began slinging tacos. Buffalo's taco scene has never been the same.
Today, Lloyd Taco Trucks has a fleet that serves all of Western New York, as well as a drop-off catering service and the Lloyd Taco Factory brick and mortar shop on Hertel Avenue. Lloyd plans to expand to Elmwood Avenue in the coming months. “Tacos are the perfect vessels for expressing any cuisine,” Dorsaneo said. “From al pastor to fried chicken and waffles, everything tastes good as a taco.” True to form, Lloyd offers everything from that same chicken and waffles to a cheeseburger taco and a Thai tofu taco, alongside more traditional fillings.
Deep South Taco joined the scene in early 2016, with its first location reviving the north end of Ellicott Street in downtown Buffalo; a Hertel location is also planned. Deep South’s nacho platter lives up to its name, a hulking mass almost too heavy to lift, and its artisanal Texas-style tacos are rich with just-grilled char.
La Divina Mexican Store started serving authentic tacos in Kenmore last July, and word quickly got out that the little lunch counter in the Kenmore Mexican grocery store was the real deal. With a handful of meat choices slapped on the flat top right in front of the diner, then either nestled in a homemade tortilla or between two fluffy slices of bread for a torta, one of the best sandwiches in Western New York, from any cuisine.
Valle de Mexico runs a full-service Mexican restaurant on South Park in South Buffalo that is worth the wait, even if the wait for simple tacos and accoutrements can be upwards of an hour. The same owners are planning a Hamburg expansion, to give the Southtowns easier access to south-of-the-border taste.
For the Lloyd gentlemen and the taco fiends who followed, it all started with “taco Tuesdays” in high school and a healthy dose of nostalgia.
“There is something super pleasing and primal about eating a taco with your hands and letting the ingredients get all over,” Dorsaneo explains. And in Western New York, the dark days are over. Taco fans can get those ingredients all over, well, all over, with a selection as wide as the taco-lover’s imagination.
As many Buffalo innovations do, Industry Night all started with a similar event in another city: in this case, Toronto’s 86’d Mondays at the Drake Hotel. Toronto food writer and trendsetter Ivy Knight curates that food competition and showcase, and, in 2008 or 2009, she began inviting Buffalo chefs. When Christa Glennie Seychew visited with iconic Buffalo chef Mike Andrzejewski, Adam Goetz of Craving, and Bruce Wieszela of Thin Man, a lightbulb lit.
Seychew and Andrzejewski launched a similar event, Industry Night (IN) in 2012 on a July Monday—the traditional night off for restaurant service industry folk—a night when, according to Seychew, “It was so effing hot outside and Seabar was so packed with people that we actually broke the air conditioning.”
Buffalo’s food scene has grown considerably since IN started, and Seychew says she finds inspiration in that, as well as the support the event has received since its inception. “I am insanely inspired by and interested in deep, immersive, experiential, and experimental, arty food stuff and have spent years studying both historical and contemporary examples of such things. I have hundreds of ideas and I’d love to find a way to do more of that at IN,” Seychew says.
Held every two weeks or so on Mondays, IN today is a free event for people in the dining/hospitality professions and the general public to network, sample quirky, innovative, or downright weird food and experience new trends in the food scene, regardless of their involvement or stature. The topics feature such themes as Seven Deadly Sins, in which seven tastes echo seven vices; a fiercely competitive craft cocktail competition; beer and food pairings and much more. While the events center around food, the fellowship is equally—if not more so—integral to the spirit of IN.
“I am amazed at how many of the general public show up on a Monday night to hang with us—it’s great!” Seychew enthuses. “Another thing we’ve seen happen on several occasions is a newly relocated cook finding a job before the night’s out.” That chemistry, more than anything else, is what makes IN such a Buffalo establishment: local chefs and food fanatics getting together to help each other find jobs, push menus to the next level, and try experimental cuisine, all in the name of keeping Buffalo’s food scene on the map.
Industry Night schedules and more information are available at industrynightbuffalo.com.
Queen City residents can transport their tastebuds to the Balkan peninsula, thanks to Senad Soteli, a recent transplant who came to Buffalo from Bosnia via Iowa. Soteli decided to make the move to Western New York after visiting relatives here several times.
Soteli opened Balkan Dining at 687 Kenmore Avenue in 2013; the restaurant specializes in dishes common to Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Greece, as well as Bosnia. Newcomers to Balkan food can expect a combination of Turkish and Mediterranean characteristics, with a special blend of spices common to the region. Soteli and his family work together to provide fresh homemade cuisine, which includes dishes like Bosnian Moussaka—layers of potatoes topped with seasoned ground beef, eggs, and cheese—and their famous apple stuffed with walnuts and topped with whipped cream.
According to Soteli, there is no other place in Buffalo that provides traditional homemade Bosnian food, including the region’s bread, sausages, and cakes. The restaurateur purchases his ingredients from locally owned stores and farmers markets, but needs to import the spices from Europe. He and his family spend several hours preparing the day’s offerings before they open, and he’s gratified by the responses they’re getting: “Buffalo has surprised me in many ways, such as the community’s willingness to try something new and the customers’ appreciation for what we do.”
Many Buffalonians may remember ceramic crocks full of shredded cabbage or garlicky green cucumbers parked in dark corners of their Oma or Babcia’s kitchens. What our grandmothers knew—and a new generation of health and food fanatics is quickly rediscovering—is that those vessels of fermented foods are exceptionally good for the body and offer deliciously complex flavors without an abundance of preservatives, cost, or preparation.
Scientifically speaking, fermentation is the process by which an organism (such as wild or culinary yeast, bacteria like those in yogurt, a kombucha SCOBY, or a vinegar mother) converts starches or sugars into acid or alcohol.
On the tongue, it’s the tingly bite of a barrel-cured dill pickle, the bubbles and funky undertone in kombucha and beer, the active tang of sauerkraut and kimchi, the sour of sourdough. In the belly, fermentation introduces scores of probiotics, healthy organisms that boost the digestive system’s ability to regulate itself and bolster the immune system. It’s this distinctive duo of flavor and health that have spurred three fledgling fermentation operations to open downtown.
Buffalo Barrel + Brine peddles naturally fermented pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut, vinegar, and miso from a Carolina Street corner shop on the West Side. Co-owner RJ Marvin, formerly of Elm Street Bakery, uses a combination of centuries-old recipes and new spins on old classics to satisfy a clientele that ranges from a woman who swears by fermented pickle brine as a health tonic to people looking to stock an epic Bloody Mary garnish station. Barrel + Brine’s handmade jars of goodness can also be found at Feel-Rite, Premier Gourmet, Guercio’s, and a handful of local breweries and restaurants.
Not far away on Connecticut Street, Bootleg Bucha brews up an ancient fermented tea called kombucha. The Bootleg crew uses natural herbs, spices, fruits, and roots to concoct refreshing flavor combinations like citra hops, blueberry-lavender, pomegranate, piña colada, and best-selling tart cherry-mint. Co-owner Jeff Empric says that not only can kombucha help with a host of ills (like reducing reliance on heartburn medication), it also makes a killer cocktail mixer—think ginger kombucha in a Moscow Mule. Bootleg Bucha is open five days a week for samplings, pints, and growler fills in the basement of Horsefeathers Market.
If you’d rather fiddle with ferments yourself, Buffalo-based online retailer Raw Rutes sells all the homesteading tools (many manufactured locally) you’ll need to pursue more active culinary adventures. Their collection includes several sizes of stoneware fermenting crocks, ’kraut kits, seasonings and starters, and how-to books. Bonus: shipping within Buffalo is free.
Western New York Vegfest
The first two WNY Vegfests, held in Delaware Park in 2014 and 2015, were so well-attended that when the festival’s organizers learned they would lose some of their space this year to a new restaurant in the park’s Marcy Casino, they realized they needed a new venue.
Sara Rogers, one of Vegfest’s three founders, hopes that an even bigger crowd will head to Riverside Park for Western New York’s largest celebration of all things animal-friendly, vegetarian, and vegan.
Bands, speakers, exhibitors, vendors, kids’ activities, and the largest-ever Tofurky Trot 5K race are all part of the fun, but, for most people, the food is the main attraction. Like the past two festivals, this year’s event features a diverse lineup of treats, including vegan versions of burgers and other traditional vegetarian/vegan favorites, as well as a wide range of ethnic food traditions.
Attendee Carla Freeland says, “I got an Indian dish that was so delicious, I went back for seconds later, like a lunch and dinner thing.” She also bought a post-lunch cookie, which must have been a hot item. “The cookies were sold out when I went back for more.” Freeland, who is not vegetarian, notes, “All the vendors are really friendly. They are not pushing vegetarian or veganism, just encouraging people to try a variety of dishes.”
While the full slate of vendors had not been booked at press time, attendees can look forward to the return of Ashker’s, Merge, and the wildly popular vegan softserve ice cream sold by the committee to raise funds for the festival.
Fans of the festival can also support it through attendance at fun Vegfest fundraising events throughout the year. Past successes have included brunch, a pizza and wing party, a picnic in the park, and a pop-up burrito night at Ashker’s. Like the WNY Vegfest Facebook page or visit wnyvegfest.com for information on these events and the full lineup for WNY Vegfest 2016.
Vegfest 2016, a free event, is Sunday, August 7, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., at Riverside Park.