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My name is Andrew, and I’m a Buffaholic

Hi. My name is Andrew, and I’m a Buffaholic.

By day, I write about restaurants for The Buffalo News and Buffalo.com, a daily newspaper and website that serve a metropolitan area of about 1 million people. By night, I roam the streets of Buffalo and its environs, looking for the best meals possible.

Buffalo is in the midst of a restaurant gold rush. From downtown to the suburbs, new places are opening at a pace that industry veterans call unprecedented.

A generation raised on the Food Channel has taken up restaurant-going as daily sport. They roll their eyes at Guy Fieri but are hungry for the discovery of an authentic place around the corner. Their smartphones are alive with others having better times than they are, and they will spend to close the gap, and plant their Instagram flag.

Restaurant-makers have noticed. Decades of population loss and economic stagnation have put restaurant-capable real estate within financial reach of first-timers as well as established restaurateurs expanding their portfolios and opportunistic business types hoping to turn a buck.

Families who settled here after fleeing war or worse in their native lands are blessing their new neighborhoods with the flavors of Burma, Iraq, Bosnia and Ethiopia. Then there are the sons and daughters of Buffalo who grew up in kitchens in Manhattan and Aspen and Boston before returning to stake their claim.

Trying to keep up with Buffalo’s new places and dishes of the moment is pleasantly impossible. It’s the best job in the building, the best job I’ve ever had. Except when it’s the worst.

Cry me a river, I know. But hear me out.

My name is Andrew, and I’m a Buffaholic.

Buffaholism’s core condition is an abiding sense that your town will always be ranked among the losers, synonymous with failure. It manifests in different ways. One symptom is a tendency to scoff at any development news touted as a Sign That Things Have Changed. Having heard announcements of Signs That Things Have Changed for most of my adult life, I have developed a severe allergy to municipal cheerleading.

I don’t want to contribute to false optimism. Like overused antibiotics, it weakens natural defenses to disappointment.

I have seen glimmers of something remarkable happening in Buffalo restaurants, but I’ve kept it mostly to myself. A part of me wanted to shout my head off about it years ago. I did not.

Why? Because I love my city, and I hate to see it let down. Monday morning at the office after a Bills loss is a black hole no tonnage of Timbits can lighten.

I’m a Buffaholic. But I’m getting better.

The restaurants of Buffalo are forcing me to confront my illness. Plate by plate, meal by meal, they are feeding me the antidote, the medicine that’s helping me believe in my city again.

***

I grew up out in the woods, in Indian Falls, a Genesee County hamlet without a stoplight. If I climbed to the top of the maple tree across the street, I could see the Marine Midland Tower’s lights on the western horizon, marking downtown Buffalo.

My understanding of the world beyond the cornfields came from two sources: Buffalo television stations on our 12-inch black-and-white set with coat hanger antenna, and The Buffalo Evening News, delivered by car each afternoon to the mailbox tube.

Being the 1980s, that TV was our only screen. The newspaper was far more powerful, pumping a river of information into my developing brain.

The sports section was where the champions lived. Every fall, the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres embarked on the road to glory, chronicled in loving detail by journalists serving as surrogates for a community that had suffered so much loss and heartbreak. Loss and heartbreak were the province of the local news and business sections: companies bleeding away to Mexico, entire industries crumbling into ruin.

The sports section had a different tone. Every season, the Bills and Sabres offered hope, and I got hooked.

The years the Buffalo Bills went to the Super Bowl, I was working at newspapers in Concord, N.H., and St. Petersburg., Fla. As the guy from Buffalo, I made chicken wings and invited people to watch the game. For four years, I hosted celebrations that morphed into wakes.

That was a long time ago, but not long enough. My left eyelid still twitches every time I hear “wide right.”

In 1997, hired by The Buffalo News, I caught Sabres fever. When Brett Hull ended the 1999 Stanley Cup finals with his skate in the crease, I was sad. The next playoffs, John LeClair put a puck through the side of the net. The National Hockey League said it was a good goal. I started to sense a trend.

In 2006, Jason Pominville went coast-to-coast shorthanded in overtime to assassinate the Ottawa Senators. Rick Jeanneret howled “Now do you believe?”

I did. I did believe.

Sixteen days later, I woke to learn that key Sabres defenseman Jay McKee had a knee infection. He could not play in the game that would decide if the Sabres would play for the Stanley Cup.

I started to reassess a few things. What if God did in fact hate Buffalo? What would the Nineveh of the Great Lakes look like? Like Brian Campbell firing a puck over the glass, then a power-play goal ending the season?

The little-boy fan in me died that night.

***

I still go to Sabres games, sharing season tickets with colleagues. I sit in the same seat I was in the night I fell in love with Dominik Hasek. I’m paying $76 per game, call it $100 with snacks and drinks. Now I’ve been considering how far that C-note would go in a Buffalo restaurant. At the better places, I would leave not just satisfied, but proud to live in Buffalo.

Proud. To live in Buffalo.

My name is Andrew, and I’m a Buffaholic.

But I’m getting better since I found a new team to root for.

Every week, I choose a restaurant and write a review that tries to tell people what it’s like to eat there. I’m the only person who gets paid to eat in all of Buffalo’s new places and tell everyone what I think.

I have no taste for cheerleading. But it’s my job to tell the truth as I see it. So here goes.

Something remarkable is growing in Buffalo. An established roster of fine and casual restaurants has been joined by a plethora of places offering choices Buffalo never had. In the last five years, new restaurants have fed me some of the best meals of my life.

I can still step into Duff’s for a double hot and a pitcher. A fish fry at Wiechec’s in Kaisertown, spaghetti sausage parm at DiTondo’s, pasta that makes me want to hug the chef at Ristorante Lombardo.

What’s new is hidden in a former Kenmore pizzeria turned into a cozy little restaurant called Balkan Dining. Ask for “pita.” (Elsewhere it’s known as burek.) Whereupon a Bosnian woman makes fresh phyllo dough, fills it with meat, cheese, potatoes or spinach, curls it into a snail, bakes it to a flaky golden-brown, and brings it to you. For $7.

Over on Grant Street, a place called West Side Bazaar is, dollar for dollar, the most fun dining room in Buffalo. There, families who came to the United States in search of a better life are making a run at their own American dreams, in a scrappy little food court. Two kinds of Burmese, Ethiopian, Laotian, dim sum, Thai, all cooked to ethnic standards, because they’re feeding their cousins, but their new neighbors are welcome too.

At Five Points Bakery, two former gutter punks have built a bakery making bread from Hamburg wheat. It serves toast that stars in tourist guides. There’s Essex Street Pub, the scruffy West Side bar where Ani DiFranco and the Goo Goo Dolls played some of their first sets. Now it offers legit barbecue and vegan club sandwiches with Buffalo-brewed beers, another homegrown duo honing its chops.

Downtown, Toutant is making Buffalonians relearn how to make a reservation. Its jam is homegrown versions of Southern classics with killer hooks. Because of Louisiana-born chef James Roberts’ decision to plant his flag in Buffalo, on Mother’s Day I got to feed mom blue-collar classics she loves, made with fine-dining focus. You can get your mom roses. I took mine downtown for the best chicken and waffle brunch ever.

Down the street is Mike Andrzejewski, the forerunner. He was the chef making the case for Buffalo on the national stage at Oliver’s and Tsunami before putting the first pin in the downtown restaurant revival map with Seabar. Many diners know his beef-on-weck sushi. Few realize how he helped make the return of talented repatriates possible by proving Buffalo would support a fiercely personal vision. If he could pack tables serving what he loved – Pacific-Rim-inflected fine dining, Buffalo-style sushi, fish flown in from Honolulu – maybe they could make their dream come true in Buffalo too.

In East Aurora, Jay and Kim DePerno’s Elm Street Bakery is what you get when a couple falls in love with an old bakery in Paris and tries to bring that terroir-based style home. Most of its 28 breads bake in its wood-fired oven, and it offers locally based rustic dinners and first-class sweets. On Hertel Avenue, Craving is offering carnivores and vegetarians old-school dishes made with a new appreciation of local ingredients. Chef Adam Goetz makes deals with farmers to grow vegetables and raise animals that go directly to his dinner plates.

***

I have taken to calling such places New School Buffalo. They could make only-in-Buffalo food worth visiting for. By showing that Lockport pork and Lewiston peaches are tastes to brag on just as much as Carolina shrimp or Vidalia onions; that indigenous Buffalo cuisine goes beyond chicken wings.

Not there is anything wrong with deep-fried bar snacks. At a New School Buffalo place like Steven and Ellen Gedra’s The Black Sheep, your $10 brings crispy nuggets of luscious T-Meadow Farm pork grown in Lockport and swaddled in kimchi barbecue sauce. With housemade Ranch dressing. Made in Buffalo. Only in Buffalo.

They taste like victory.

These new places are just getting started. They’re investing time and money in developing relationships with farmers, working out how to get more of the good stuff, knowing they are up against chain restaurants on Niagara Falls Boulevard with multi-million-dollar advertising budgets and hour-long waits at dinnertime.

If we support these sons and daughters of Buffalo with our money, and our attention, we could win – national recognition, anyway. Respect.

Meanwhile, our restaurants are helping make Buffalo a city our children choose to stay in, not flee. Ask any parent what that’s worth.

My name is Andrew, and I may always be a Buffaholic. But I’m taking recovery one meal at a time.

Send restaurant tips to agalarneau@buffnews.com and follow @BuffaloFood on Instagram and Twitter.

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