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Gene McCarthy’s has super soup and much more

If for nothing else, go to Gene McCarthy’s for the soup.

Off the beaten path and flanked by railroad tracks and grain elevators, the historic Gene McCarthy’s sits in Buffalo’s Old First Ward. Opened in 1963 by Gene and his wife, Mary, the place has changed hands a couple of times and is now owned by Bill Metzger, Matt Conron and Kristin Rose. Chef Dustin Tower bought a couple of “shares” this year. The group plans to break ground on a brewery on the lot next door this spring. They’ve started a Founder’s Club to help build it.

It’s an interesting combination of old and new at Gene McCarthy’s. The décor is circa 1960s. Sit at the bar and you’ll notice the slight downward slope of the top and an ancient phone on the back wall. We loved the wooden tables with ledges underneath to hold drinks, leaving the top free for cards or whatever. Where do you see those anymore?

A wall separating the bar from the back was removed to open the place up, but the pictures and memorabilia on the walls have remained. The current owners wanted to keep the feel of the old, historic neighborhood bar.

The food is a combination of old and modern, too.

We were hooked, especially on those darn soups, starting with the house Potato Bacon Chowder ($3 cup/$5 bowl).

Potato soup (like most cream types) can move to sludge in a flash. Not this stuff. Silken is the only way to describe it. The velvety, creamy broth held nice chunks of tender-but-not-mushy potato with pieces of bacon.

Just as silken was a special soup of the day – a Salmon Leek. Beautiful chunks of salmon and finely chopped leeks bathed in a creamy broth made us wish we ordered a bowl.

On another visit, there was a hearty Beef Vegetable with a nice, beefy broth and chunks of vegetables. Chef Dustin scores an A+ in soup making. We want to return to taste more of his repertoire.

As for the rest of the menu, Gene McCarthy’s kept its gritty persona but added special touches to a small menu of pub-style food.

Regular Buffalo Wings (10 for $7.50) are available as are more “exotic” choices like McCarthy’s sweet and spicy sauce with crumbled blue, barbecue, chipotle lime, Thai chili/garlic and honey mustard. Choose regular Chicken Fingers ($8.50) or Portobello Fingers with Smoked Gorgonzola Aioli ($5.50). A Beef on Weck ($8) is basic, as it should be, but a Grilled Cheese ($6) is elevated with roasted tomato and herb aioli on sourdough. You get the idea.

All sandwiches come with a choice of either fresh-cut fries (tossed in an addicting seasoning), house-made potato salad, macaroni salad or a garden salad (nice touch) and of course, a pickle.

My Beer Brat ($8.50) was fantastic. McCarthy’s uses the Broadway Market’s Lupas Meats. I loved the mild, lightly seasoned pork/veal sausage. It was a nice change from heavily spiced and smoked sausage. The brat came on a toasted roll with a healthy dose of bacon sauerkraut and New York State cheddar.

The Sig Other’s Turkey Club ($8.50) was basic yet very good. On two slices of nicely toasted white bread (instead of the usual three), it was still substantial with fresh turkey, lettuce, bacon, tomatoes, Swiss and lettuce. A BLT ($8) comes with the twist of garlic mayo and sourdough bread.

My dad’s House Smoked Pulled Pork ($8) was a nice meaty sandwich topped with sharp cheddar, served with blue cheese coleslaw. He couldn’t stop raving about the slaw and his side of house-made macaroni salad. Not too much mayo, it had nice dices of carrots for color and texture. A testament to the kitchen – my father took half the sandwich and leftover macaroni salad home. He never does leftovers!

Other sandwiches include a Reuben ($8.50) made with Lupas Meats corned beef, Tuna Salad ($6.50) and a Turkey Panini ($7.50) with caramelized onions and cranberry mayo. Weekday lunch sandwiches are $8.50 – Monday Barbecue Bacon Burger, Tuesday Steak and Cheese, Wednesday Hot Turkey, Thursday Hot Beef and a Friday Fish Fry.

A Ground Chuck Burger runs $8. The most expensive item is Friday’s Fish Fry for $11, which includes potato and macaroni salad, coleslaw and fries. We learned the coleslaw is a different version than the slaw used for the pulled pork.

The best proof that the owners are doing something right?

We heard Gene McCarthy’s widow, Mary, and her family make regular visits. We wonder if she enjoys the food as much as we do? We think she does.