Buffalo is on a roll.
A kümmelweck roll.
Get that umlaut in there. “Kümmel” is caraway. You say it “kimmel,” which is why you often see it spelled “kimmelweck.” However you spell it, the word is getting out that this homey German tavern sandwich, more mysterious to outsiders than the chicken wing, is worth its salt.
Anthony Bourdain, one of television’s more well-traveled eaters, described it “a tasty little masterpiece.” And on Allrecipes, the celebrated Chef John posts a recipe for weck, which is South German dialect for roll.
“The roll’s fragrant caraway seeds and coarse salt are a perfect accent, and when you add a steaming ramekin of fresh beef jus for dunking, you’ll understand why this is the pride of Western New York.”
Time to grab one.
Schwabl’s is famous for its BOW (to use the hip abbreviation you see on Yelp). Bar Bill Tavern, in East Aurora, also gets wows for its BOWs. So does Anderson’s, Kelly’s Korner in North Buffalo – and, of course, Charlie the Butcher. The list is long and much debated.
On a whim, we made our way to the big, medieval door of Swiston’s Beef and Keg. It’s in the City of Tonawanda, on the Erie Canal. In the summer, boats dock there, as their owners refuel. On a bitterly cold day, Swiston’s has charm. The dining room, with its stunning view of the water, was toasty.
Swiston’s has a decades-old tradition of offering only chili or beef on weck. Just two weeks ago, though, there came a seismic shift. Owners Nick and Dimitri Kollidas, whose parents bought the tavern in 1983, made the radical move to add fryers. Nick said his wife had come up with a killer recipe for loganberry wings – wings in a sweet, sticky, spicy, yummy loganberry sauce (yes, we tried them). They now offer those, too, and fries.
But the beef goes on as it always has.
An employee arrives at 6 a.m. to begin cooking a big roast. When just done, it’s carved thin, and the juices – or jus, or au jus – into a deep pan. The pan simmers behind the bar, steam rising off it. On demand, the slices of beef go into the jus, and soak until hot.
Dustie Wells, the manager for 13 years, watched over our beef.
“You don’t want to soak it too long,” she said.
She slid the weck roll into a toaster oven.
“So they take, like, two minutes,” she said. “So we pop a pickle on the plate. And there you go.”
Satisfied, we ate, gazing out at the frozen Erie Canal, sipping a Blue, ruminating on our region’s greatness. Unlike wings, which invite improvisation, beef on weck is beautiful in its simplicity. Places that respect it serve it as God intended, on salty, crunchy weck. They don’t ask if you want a different kind of roll. They don’t offer toppings other than local horseradish. (Swiston’s serves Miller’s, made in Lockport.)
With such Mozartean transparency comes challenge. For a restaurant, a good beef on weck is a badge of honor.
Mister Dee’s, in Cheektowaga, asks if you want your beef rare, medium or well. A bright family restaurant, it has a different kind of coziness from Swiston’s. Yet the soul is the same. I overheard: “Why does everyone serve cauliflower? Nobody likes it.”
Here we spoke up and asked for the jus on the side, so we could dunk. I should have thought of this at Swiston’s. It’s delicious. The beef was juicy, rare as we requested, a decent inch and a half thick. My friend loved it, but said Kelly’s Korner heaps it even higher. One day soon we will see.
Which brings us to the best thing about beef on weck: It won’t blow your diet. According to MyFitnessPal, Charlie the Butcher’s clocks in at 480 calories. Others are less. We can all become connoisseurs of this über-Buffalo bar treat. Umlaut and all.