In 1993, Buffalo was introduced to Beanie Babies and Niagara Café. A quarter-century later, one of those is more popular than ever.
The parking lot of Niagara Café, the city's oldest Puerto Rican restaurant, is usually full. Its concrete parking stops each carry the name of a Puerto Rican locale, so when members of the diaspora pull in, it's a little bit like coming home.
Inside, customers line up along a counter holding trays of fried snacks under glass, patiently waiting their turn. Others settle into a table or booth and await a server in a colorful Niagara Café jersey.
In the bleak days of Buffalo's February-without-end, there's nothing like a Niagara Café lunch, sipping the passion fruit drink called parcha and listening to Puerto Rican pop videos on the television while fat snowflakes bash against the windows. You want the beaches and coconut palms, but at least you can get the food.
I have eaten lunch at Niagara Café 40 or 50 times. The yellow rice has always been perfect: chewy-firm, medium-grain, golden with sazon spices, punctuated with pigeon peas. How this humble restaurant has achieved consistency that evades more highfalutin places, I do not know. What I do know is that Niagara Café offers one of the best returns for your dining dollar in Buffalo.
Lunch specials, served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday, are $6.45. They are the gateway to the Niagara Café experience. This restaurant is cash only, so bring bills or hit the in-house ATM.
The roasted pork lunch special brings a tender heap of pork shoulder that’s been cooked long enough for the sweetness to come out, plus rice and beans. A dash of cooking juice moistens the meat.
The perfect rice wants to be spooned into the soupy ramekin of beans with potatoes, and jacked up with hot sauce from the bottle on the table. Don’t resist. Finish up and think about all the lame sandwiches you’ve endured for more than that $6.45. Promise yourself to do better. For instance, the roast pork hoagie ($6.45) will fill out your roll with roast pork, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. I’d add a spritz of hot sauce, but that’s me.
Niagara Café’s rotisserie chicken is among the better versions in the city, if it hasn’t been waiting for you too long. At its best the skin is browned for enjoying as its own course, the flesh moist and enjoyable as you pull it off the bone. Throw it in with the beans. There are no rules here.
The beef stew and chicken stew are mild versions, begging to be doctored up with hot sauce, salt and pepper. The fried pork chop lunch is for the unapologetic carnivore, up for gnawing on the bones of delicious creatures.
Dinner plates ($10-$11) are bigger, and offer a wider variety of centerpieces. One of my favorites is bistec encebollado ($11), which is strips of beef braised with onions in a vinegary sauce until tender.
Another is the carne frita ($11), one of the peak carnivore moments in this meat-loving city. Carne frita is chunks of pork shoulder, run through with veins of fat, tossed in dry spices and then deep-fried. When I fork up a chunk of that crispy, fatty, well-seasoned meat, I definitely feel on top of the food chain.
If a meal sounds like too much, try one of the fried snacks. Pastelillos ($2.30) are turnovers stuffed with seasoned ground beef. They’re better fresh out of the fryer, as their pastry wilts quickly while waiting for customers. Alcapurria ($2.30) is a chewy log of cassava filled with seasoned ground beef. Relleno de papa ($2.30) is a snowball-sized sphere of mashed potato that’s been stuffed with ground beef, and fried. They could all use a dash of hot sauce.
Roast pork and rotisserie chicken are the main reasons for coming here, but the cooking at this humble restaurant can ably serve vegetarians, too. The rice and beans are vegan, with no animal products. Together, they’re a solid meal.
Then there are the maduros. If you’re not familiar with plantains, Niagara Café’s maduros ($3.50) should end that deficit. Plantains are halfway between banana and potato, and fried to a caramel stickiness, they become maduros. Make sure to ask for the mojito, garlicky tomato sauce. Dunk maduros in mojito, and give thanks for whatever geopolitical currents brought the Puerto Ricans to Buffalo.
For a taste of cuisine that makes Buffalo seem tropical any time of the year, come to Niagara Café. You won’t leave marveling at the sophistication of the place, but if you can find a better spot to spend a restaurant dollar in the City of Good Neighbors, please let me know. If I can't have the beaches and palm trees, at least I can have the flavors.
Niagara Café – 8 plates (out of 10)
Location: 525 Niagara St. (885-2233)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Prices: fried snacks, $2.30-$3.50; lunch specials, $6.45, dinners, $10-$11.
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free: ask server