By Andrew Z. Galarneau
Trying to get a Buffalo snob to cross Kenmore Avenue for lunch in the suburbs just got easier.
Especially if that suburb is Amherst. It already had most of the best authentic Chinese restaurants in Western New York before a Shanghaiese outpost opened on Sheridan Drive. Recently it added a remarkably good Indian buffet restaurant that's a one-stop crash course in India's culinary diversity. For $8.95 at lunch, $12.95 for dinner.
Between Miss Hot Cafe (3311 Sheridan Dr., 832-3188, misshotcafe.com) and Spices of India (434 Evans St., Williamsville, 633-4800), these newcomers offer something for every eater - not just ethnic food fans, but chileheads, meat lovers, and vegans alike.
(Much more after the jump, including pictures and menus.)
Spices of India has evolved from an Indian grocery into a lunch-dinner buffet operation plus Indian sandwich counter. Four kinds of dosas, the plate-sized South Indian crepes wrapped around potato or meat fillings, are on offer, and meat or vegetable kabobs on baked-to-order naan flatbread.
We got chicken kabobs that compared favorably to the Lahore Tikka House on Gerrard St. East in Toronto: moist coarse ground chicken thighs studded with green chile, cilantro, red onion and whole coriander seed that pops when you chew.
The same light, fluffy buttered naan comes with the buffet. So do seven kinds of intense Indian pickles, rice, a dal lentil stew, and chunks of cooling watermelon. There are six curries from vegetables to Chinese-Indian fusion Manchurian dishes, from tender goat to soothing paneer cheese in tomato cream. Milky chai tea. Two or three Indian desserts besides the usual rice pudding, and four kinds of American ice cream, in case you have kids to bribe.
The food is enough reason to go. Curious types can turn it into a delicious seminar by taking the staffers up on their offer to explain anything you're wondering about. I bent the guy's ear for probably 15 minutes altogether, and I ran out of questions before he ran out of patience.
I learned a lot. The buffet includes little puffs called pani puri. Think of them as Indian nachos. You tear the tops out and fill a plate with them. Then you doctor them up to taste with the array of toppings in front of you. Green cilantro-mint chutney, tangy white yogurt sauce, brown sweet-and-sour tamarind sauce, chickpeas, masala dry spice mixture, pickles, whatever. There was yet another sauce available, a spice-bomb by the look of a ladleful, and I decided not to press my luck.
And that was just the appetizer round.
Remember that 1.2 billion people eat Indian food, and it means a lot of different things. Between them and the Chinese, that's more than a quarter of humanity, and Chinese comes in a lot of flavors too.
Since 2010, as thousands of Chinese nationals arrived in Amherst as University at Buffalo students, staff and family members, local fans of authentic Chinese cuisines have seen their chances for fulfillment multiply.
Peking Quick One (359 Somerville Ave., Tonawanda, 381-8730) added northern Chinese dishes like whole steamed flounder and shredded stir-fried potatoes.
The menu at China Star (4001 Sheridan Drive, Amherst, 631-7198) shows a strong Sichuan streak, with hotpots and "water cooked" dishes, fiery chili-laced cauldrons of proteins, vegetables and noodles, and "Chong Qing Spicy Chicken," dry-fried in a welter of chiles and garlic.
Wok & Roll (5467 Sheridan Drive, Amherst, 631-8880, thewokandroll.com) stepped up with relatively subtle Cantonese dishes, Peking Style Pork Chops, and casseroles like chicken with mushrooms. (Not to mention a spiffy room and a working website.)
The last time I was in, the chef brought out a dish he said would be on the summer menu. Called "fish chasing the pier," it was light whitefish mousse cleverly molded onto halved baby bok choy so each resembled a green-tailed koi, complete with eyes of tiny toothpicked carrot cubes.
The fourth, Miss Hot Cafe (3311 Sheridan Dr., 832-3188, misshotcafe.com) opened a couple of weeks ago. It's got a bigger menu and a staff that seems to move faster. They gave everyone 10 percent off the total bill, the first "opening jitters" discount I've seen since I don't know when.
The menu seems to lean Shanghaiese, with a serious collection of classic Shanghai appetizers like smoked fish, marinated duck and mock duck, which is actually made from tofu skin. (This place might also appeal to vegetarians and vegans, with shredded potato, marinated gluten, peanuts in hot sauce and other dishes that usually wouldn't have meat or dairy.)
I haven't seen those Shanghai specialties on menus here before, which leaves me thumbing through Miss Hot Cafe's thick menu, wondering which of the 100-plus dishes the cooks have really mastered.
There's dim sum daily, and while the mushroom and chive buns ($2.75) satisfied like a sweet, pillowy vegetable-stuffed doughnut:
... the scallion pancake was greasy and pale in flavor.
If they're Shanghaiese surely they can finally cure me of my longing for xiao long bao, soup dumplings?
The server said yes. The steamer said no.
Nice pork dumplings, a little juicy, but not the dangerously gravid ones I have known, and missed. No black vinegar with ginger either, making me wonder if the kitchen was spotty or if I was just not deserving.
So it's going to take a bit of work to determine what Miss Hot Cafe's core competencies are. The menu includes stuff like sea cucumber and frog that I take as indicators of serious chef intent. Whether I would order it is a separate issue.
If you go in to Miss Hot Cafe, and have something great, why not take a picture? Then you can label it with the dish name, hashtag #misshotcafe and post it to Twitter, where I am @buffalofood. Or you could send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll compile and publish a best-hits list, with credit given to contributors.
Because somebody has to ask the server, "Big Dish?"
"Really? Can you tell me a little more about what's in there?"
And have her say "Fish, chicken, pork, vegetable, everything."
And still say, "OK, let's have that."
To find out it's a Sichuan water-cooked dish, intense broth loaded with chiles and other spices, including faintly numbing Sichuan pepper. Hiding in its brick-red depths are fish fillets, cabbage, chewy noodles, thinly sliced chicken and pork, shrimp and more.
If you refer to the above menu page, you may note that while plenty of other pages indicate spicy dishes, "Big Dish" is not marked spicy.
Note: Big Dish is spicy. Deeply, thrillingly spicy. Fortunately, I know that you are not meant to drink the broth from these Sichuan cauldrons, just fish out the solids and eat them over equal amounts of rice.
There is so much you can learn in Amherst these days, and school's not even in session.
Here's most of the present menu; sorry for the lousy photo quality. Better menus, with an even broader selection of dishes, are supposedly on the way. But this should be good enough to get you wondering.
Any help with the last one especially appreciated.