Where the Buffalo Roam
Where does one draw the line that separates homage from heresy?
When thinking about regional foods, people widely associate New York with pizza. While I love a super thin, crisp-bottomed slice as much as the next guy, it’s not like New York invented pizza. And there is great pizza elsewhere. Find me a better white clam pizza than Pepe’s in New Haven. It can’t be done. Chicago’s deep dish is a thing of beauty, rarely seen outside of Illinois. Old Forge, PA puts its stake in the ground with a style all its own (although The Orchard Tavern in Albany makes a remarkably similar pizza). Trenton relies on a cracker thin crust and lets the New Jersey tomato become the star of its pies.
Plus, notable New York style pizza is really only found in New York City. And even there good examples have to be sought out. There’s more not-so-great pizza in the five boroughs than there are gotta-have-it slices.
I would argue that New York State’s greatest influence on American gastronomy has been the Buffalo chicken wing. But as the popularity of this Western New York innovation grew, people started to take liberties.
And now I’m starting to question my firm stance about what it means to be Buffalo.
I first fell in love with Buffalo wings as a teenager in Miami. During that time I was a spicy food fanatic, and I just loved the combination of heat and flavor found in this succulent package. It took me over a decade to discover that the taste I adored came from the surprisingly simple combination of Frank’s Red Hot and butter.
Since then I’ve learned that adding a few additional hot sauces and other ingredients into the sauce adds depth, complexity and balance. But without Frank’s Red Hot as the dominant flavor, it will never taste like Buffalo wings.
On the side it’s blue cheese dressing, with celery and maybe some carrots for dipping. But mostly, I enjoyed the commingling of Buffalo sauce with blue cheese to add a deep funk to an already powerful punch of flavor.
So where does ranch dressing come in?
It doesn’t. Look, I have no illusions that most of the blue cheese dressing served with Buffalo wings is ultra-processed crap that’s mostly soybean oil, sugar, thickening agents and “natural flavors”. But dammit, at least there are some lumps of actual cheese in the thing, and I’ll live for those small nuggets of hope. Ranch dressing has nothing. It’s just creamy, vile stuff studded with dried herbs.
Still, ranch dressing is the default option for Chicken Joe’s Buffalo chicken fries. In theory, anything called Buffalo chicken fries should be amazing. I love Buffalo wing sauce so much, I’m happy to forgo the wing and just slather the sauce on anything. Fries are a great substrate since they are hot, crispy, tender, and oily. Plus after you’ve had a few beers, you can still make a batch of crisped potatoes and not risk salmonella poisoning. But why, WHY, would you sully these with ranch dressing? Sure, there is a blue cheese option, but that’s beside the point.
Then Comfort Kitchen challenged the notion of what it meant for something to be Buffalo style. Their Buffalo burger is topped with blue cheese, Sriracha mayonnaise, pickled carrots and lettuce. To them it would seem that Buffalo implies simply the combination of pepper sauce with blue cheese. At least they got the blue cheese part right, but the lack of Frank’s feels wrong.
But maybe I’m being too uptight about this. Usually, I’m not inclined to such notions of flexibility on the definitions of classic foods. However, I found this Buffalo wing cheese plate from Di Bruno Bros in Philadelphia to be particularly inspired.
There is no chicken. There is no Frank’s. There is no celery. Maybe the reason why I’m okay with this is because it is so far away from the real thing that it’s clearly an homage and not a bastardization. But apparently if you take cured smoked goose, spread it with Hungarian hot pepper mustard, and top it with some of the world’s best Stilton, it provides a taste sensation remarkably like a Buffalo chicken wing.
They are selling these ingredients along with accompaniments in a discounted set. The spicy twice baked crostini will give the good crunch one would find in well-fried wings. I have no doubt that the cornichons and Brooklyn Brine pickled carrots will be much better palate cleansers than the sad limp pieces of celery that all too often come with traditional Buffalo wings.
Man, I am so tempted to get this for the super bowl, it’s not even funny. Although I think there are TVs at Princeton’s best place for wings. It may even be a BYOB joint. That would be amazing. I’ll have to check in on that.
Looks like I’m going to have some hard decisions coming up before too long. All I can say is that it’s a good thing I’ve started going to the gym.