For 363 days of each year, Buffalo’s street food options–the kind of stuff you can eat while walking, talking, or, for the seriously coordinated, cycling – can be kindly described as limited.
Then the Taste of Buffalo arrives, and thousands upon thousands of Western New Yorkers and their visitors discover anew the experience of never having enough napkins, of licking one’s chops to find the far-flung remnants of zesty sauce, of navigating a busy avenue with only your peripheral vision to better focus on the tasty morsel at hand.
This year’s festival had a few new entrants, seriously warm and bright weather, and a lot of dishes that remind you of how great it is to live in city that has a never-ending infatuation with real food.
The official judges have already had their say – and hurrah for Ms. Goodie’s Junkyard Dog, probably my favorite treat from last year–but here’s a few non-objective impressions of this year’s offerings.
• Value propositions: Veterans of the Taste have undoubtedly noticed a trend toward items increasing to a six-to-eight-ticket cost (that’s $3-$4 in non-Taste tender) while staying at sample sizes. Most stands offer a “taste” portion for two or three tickets, but only a few stood out as real bang for the buck:
- Merritt Estate’s 3 ticket “taste” of its sangria slushie is a small Solo cup filled with the frozen fruit-infused wine. Maybe it was the heat, but more than one female correspondent reported feeling quite content with the hooch-to-cash ratio.
- The kheer offered up by Kabab & Curry is surprisingly perfect, given that it’s being dished out in mass quantities. But the texture is silken, the hints of cardamom and saffron are there, and it was chilled just right–all for just two tickets. My modest proposal for next year–bring out the dosas.
- The Niagara Cafe, whose in-house lunch offerings aren’t that much more expensive than other stands full-size items, offered a two-ticket “taste” of their arroz con pollo with stewed chicken and potatoes over rice that had tender meat, hearty spices laced thorugh a tomato base, and more filling flavor than you’d expect from a take-out sauce container. Their chile relleno,or stuffed pepper, wasn’t all too different in its makeup from other stands’, but it was crisp instead of soggy, and flavored with kick rather than overwhelmed by ricotta:
• Unassuming awesomeness: There was a lot of food that sounded great and was, a good number of plates I couldn’t quite understand winning an award (or meriting a $4 investment), and then there was the Hamlin House’s “Grilled Blue Shrimp Strawberry Salad.” The “blue” came from the cheese, and it was glazed with just the right amount of fresh-mixed balsamic dresing. The grilled shrimp alone was worthy of praise, but it was a reasonably healthy, heartily portioned bit of adventurous flavor-blending. To say the least, it was a nice showing from an American Legion post on Franklin Street:
• Food Mob Mentality: One thing I’ve noticed about Taste of Buffalo–it turns the most share-friendly, synchronized couples into secretive snack hoarders. Stand in any crowded line, and you’ll hear a husband or wife call back to their significant other something like, “Can I have two of your tickets?” Why do couples planning to walk the entire festival together even divide their tickets? Are we all harboring a latent fear of spotting a Bacon Velveeta Kobe Burger for 6 tickets, asking for some of the communal coin, and finding only rejection and stern reminders about physician appointments? Having said this, my wife and I split our tickets evenly, and only trade up when one is too stuffed to even consider eating more.
• Assorted leftovers: I never thought I’d utter this, but the “Lunch Box” from Joe’s Deli needed … more Fritos. When you’re combining bologna, American cheese, kethcup, mustard, and the aforementioned fried corn twists in a gigantic roll, you need significant texture, or it loses its kitsch-conscious fun … Donnie’s Smokehouse wins the prize for best ambassador for the festival. You could smell his slow-cooking goods a full city block back on Delaware Avenue … If The Steer is going to go for high-energy, loud-music cooking, it would help if they pre-loaded the iPod with a few more tracks next time. In one two-hour visit, we heard Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” and a certain not-family-friendly Prince track twice each.
I’ll end this post with a fish taco from Ava Cado’s, an unassuming fresh-Mex joint in the University Plaza on Main Street, Buffalo, which, along with Fiamma, was a welcome newcomer to the Taste. Need more photographic evidence that the Taste is truly come and gone? Check out this Flickr search. May many more inventive cooks persuade their owners to try their hand at en masse cuisine next year, and may we all be there to eat (and shoot) it.