"Tell me what you eat," French culinary philosopher Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously said, "and I will tell you who you are." That's my mantra during the conversations I've been having with readers about where they should eat in Western New York.
I'm not complaining. Before I became a professional restaurant critic, I was already that guy who sent strangers at parties fleeing for the drinks table with 30-minute rants on what your favorite chicken wing spot reveals about your character. So crafting personally tailored restaurant recommendations for friends and acquaintances is light lifting.
Figuring out which restaurants will make people happy typically involves asking them questions to discern what they really want. It has been eye-opening how shocked many diners are to learn of the veritable United Nations of reasonably priced, well-done ethnic food available in Buffalo and environs.
So I decided to share my tipsheet with the readers who pay my salary. What follows are 10 dishes whose existence in Western New York has surprised my interrogators – vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. Many of these offerings have been glimpsed in prior reviews. All are excellent suggestions for people hungry to broaden their horizons while getting a satisfying meal in the bargain.
Consider the pork kalbi at Koreana (1010 Niagara Falls Blvd, Town of Tonawanda, 836-5858). The cook at this modest Korean luncheonette, Soon Sim Hong, started making her sons' favorite dishes while they were students at the University at Buffalo, according to owner Sunok King, her sister. Hong serves from her counter, and you can poke through the Korean library while you wait. Hong's boys graduated, but Korean students and others still come for hearty homestyle dishes like this thick pork rib chop, simmered for hours in Korean red chile sauce until it yields easily to your fork. The $9 dish is usually topped with braised green beans and onions.
Substantial dishes of housemade Napa cabbage kimchi and a blend of wild and white rice come alongside, as with all their dishes. The bad news: The pork kalbi is only available Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Cash only.
In Buffalo's Little Baghdad, Hertel Avenue, check out the shish kabab plate at Shish Kabab Express (1207 Hertel Ave, 447-1207, shishkababexpress.com).
The Iraqi fast-food specialists will also provide you with chicken, lamb, fish and falafel, but my favorite is the shish kabab ($11.99, sandwich $3.99), ground beef seasoned with allspice, onion, parsley and grilled to crusty succulence on skewers. Four pieces come with the plate, sprinkled with sour dried sumac and accompanied by onions, grilled tomatoes, pickles and a dab of potent garlic mayonnaise. You can get regular pita bread with it, but I'd suggest samoon, Iraqi pita made fresh daily.
Rip off a chunk of bread, make mini-sandwich to your design, devour. Repeat.
There's no shortage of Indian restaurants in town, but most of their menus offer the same best-hits collection from the subcontinent. It's worth noting the places where dishes stand out from the crowd.
Kabab & Curry (5185 Transit Road, Clarence, 565-3822), a Pakistani-Indian restaurant, isn't the only place around here you can find a dosa, the legendary vegetarian crepe from South India. Kabab & Curry's masala dosa ($9.95) has been my favorite, though.
Lentil flour batter is fermented, then spread over a hot griddle to form a two-foot-wide circle. Then the crepe, crispy at the edges, is folded around a mashed potato filling spiced with cumin, chile flakes and more. With it comes sambar, a lentil soup, plus two chutneys – coconut and tomato-garlic – for dipping, said manager Tahir Khan.
You tear off a piece of crepe, then get to dipping and scooping. It can be so engaging that you might forget it's vegan and gluten-free.
Another type of Indian cuisine that is not broadly represented in the area is chaat, a class of savory Indian snack foods. Chaat tend to be crunchy, salty, sweet, sour and spicy, and are generally vegetarian.
One good example is the samosa chaat at Delhi Chaat (3545 Sheridan Drive, Amherst, 837-3038, delhichaatny.com). The name is a clue that, while they have a menu with rice dishes, curries and fresh bread, snacks are a specialty.
Samosa chaat ($5.95) is two samosas (fried turnovers filled with spiced potatoes) that have been covered in sweet-sour tamarind sauce, spicy mint chutney and yogurt sauce, then scattered with chickpeas, chopped onion, mint, cilantro and more spices. It's a delicious riot of flavors and textures that has been compared to a "vegetarian garbage plate" for its sheer abandon.
The bhel puri chaat ($4.95) is another interesting number, the same trio of sauces on a mixture of puffed rice, diced potato and fried chickpea threads.
Asians aren't the only ones who get hungry for home cooking. In a converted South Buffalo warehouse, British natives Damian and Vicky Parker recently started serving their English Pork Pie Company's pie and mash for lunch.
Their English-style meat pie company (1176 South Park Ave., 823-3772, englishporkpiecompany.com) has been growing, and though most of its business is wholesale or frozen, the Parkers have started feeding a lunchtime clientele. It's a meat pie, usually steak and ale, atop homey, lumpy mashed potatoes with gravy, for $8.50. The brown gravy could be better, but the tender beef and savory potatoes hit the spot. At $3, sausage rolls are a bigger, better version of a sausage croissant.
Call to make sure they're open, usually 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, then head down for an authentic Britfood fix.
In the Town of Tonawanda, Peking Quick One's whole steamed flounder ($14) headlines an authentic homestyle Northern Chinese menu that has the tiny strip-mall room (359 Somerville Ave., 381-8730) packed at mealtimes. You have to pour your own water, but it's worth the trouble.
The flounder is rubbed with spices, scored, and steamed on a bed of ginger and scallions. Then it's adorned with cilantro, dried chiles and more ginger and scallions, and flashed with boiling oil, then seasoned with soy, to produce a simple sauce. If fish heads make you squeamish, bring a friend with more nerves. It's worth it.
While you're there, try other simple standouts, including the shredded stir-fried potatoes ($3.50), celery with beef ($5.95) and spicy double-cooked pork ($8.50), which is best requested thin and crispy.
While the local taco offerings seem to be broadening, there's still only one Mexican sandwich I'd drive an hour for. That's the tortas at Monte Alban, a Mexican general store and grocery that's halfway between Lockport and Rochester (507 East Center St., Medina, 585-798-9767).
If your travels take you nearby Friday through Sunday, roughly 1 to 8 p.m., you're in luck. Stop by and do some shopping for Mexican groceries if you like, for chiles, tortillas, cowboy hats, Mexican candies and more. Then head around the side of the store, where there's a few picnic tables covered in corrugated plastic roofing, and a trailer. The senoritas inside it will make tacos (five for $8) and tortas ($5) from a lineup of meats including beef al carbon and carne asada, pork al pastor, chorizo (sausage), and pollo (chicken).
The torta is a big, crusty roll with one or two meats layered inside, along with pickled jalapenos, sliced avocados, refried beans, fresh cheese, cilantro and more. Be prepared: You may become jealous of Medinaites.
One for dessert: Sun Restaurant Buffalo's sticky rice with Thai custard ($5).
Buffalo's original Burmese restaurant (1989 Niagara St., 447-0202) has expanded its authentic offerings, including mustard greens, pumpkin curry, and a dynamite fish-cake salad called Nga Pel Thoat that's hard to pronounce, but even harder to stop eating.
But the dessert we had put lie to the notion that Asian desserts don't translate here. A firm bed of sweet rice is the "crust," topped with a not-too-sweet egg custard made with coconut milk. It's cool comfort food with a tropical twist.
Quick hits: A few honorable mentions before I run out of room. Try Indian-Chinese crossover classic vegetable Manchurian at Taj Grill (2290 Delaware Ave., 875-1000, tajgrill.net). Also available in chicken, it's fried croquettes in a tangy but not-too-spicy chili sauce ($7.95 vegetable, $8.95 chicken).
The cumin lamb at China Star (4001 Sheridan Drive, Amherst, 631-7198) is an aromatic example of Mongolian-inflected homestyle Chinese, in a place with a broad list of Sichuan specialties, not to mention walk-on-the-wild-side dishes like chicken feet, duck tongue and pork intestine, too.