It ain’t easy being a Buffalo sports fan. Greeting a fellow Sabres season ticket holder these days reminds me of nods traded while waiting to sign the condolences book at a wake, and the Bills fans are worse.
Fortunately, I am not a one-sport man. Eating is my primary form of paid fun. In that arena, Buffalo shines. Among its constellation of remarkable eats, the West Side Bazaar shines brightly.
Eating for sport isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, of course. Your hunger must be particularly fierce and focused, or you would never propel yourself out of your normal orbit. The easy food. The cafeteria, the restaurant on the corner, the drive-through.
The West Side Bazaar, 25 Grant St., is half international food court, half boutique. It’s in a neighborhood that some people won’t visit after dark. Walk in at lunchtime, and most of the tables are full of people eating and talking. English might not be the primary language in the room, but it’s hard to tell for sure. The Burmese, Peruvian, Thai and Ethiopian food stalls each have their own crowd.
A quick scan of the booth menus pegs the needle on my interest meter. These are cooks calibrating their dishes to families and friends, instead of blanding food down for the American palate. Inside this humble café space, in plastic bowls and Styrofoam clamshells, the daring can find an array of dishes that no single restaurant in Western New York can offer. The food is mostly good, sometimes great, and always cheap.
Score one for its not being a regular restaurant.
I nudge up to the Thai window and start asking for dishes off its menu. I couldn’t pronounce the names right – kow man gui? Kway teow? – so I started using the numbers instead. Turns out they were out of everything I wanted. Thai fried rice with shrimp paste? We only have regular fried rice. He suggests pad Thai, the cheeseburger of Asia. I am not going to surrender that easily.
Minus one for its not being a regular restaurant.
But here’s where your chowhound kicks in and the real fun starts. Forget the menu. Tiny operations always run out of something. Ask, what’s good today? Check out what regular customers are enjoying, then make that happen for you too.
Women dressed in business casual were enjoying dense Ethiopian stews on injera flatbread at one table. Stir-fries and noodle dishes were on lots of tables, along with bowls of coconut-based Thai and Burmese curries. Then I saw a woman hoisting a steaming bowl onto the Thai window’s counter.
It was cloudy broth with fine white rice noodles, stalks of green bok choy cabbage and chunky pork meatballs, with a poached egg on top. Then I noticed slices of tofu and whole quail eggs. The cook added a little bowl of chile sauce to the tray.
“What is that?” I said to the man behind the counter, pointing. He pointed to confirm.
“That,” I said, hunger overcoming embarrassment. “I want that, please.”
As it turned out, the guy’s name was Soe Maung Maung, and the soup was a Burmese deal called kyeoo. Not on the regular menu, Wednesdays only.
Light pork broth, greens still a bit crunchy, savory meatballs, two kinds of eggs. Soothing and mild. I added a dash of the coarse ground chile and vinegar condiment, and captured a moment of Buffalo bliss, courtesy of Burmese grandmothers. For $6.99. Score!