West Seneca doesn’t make the usual shortlists for international tourist destinations in the Niagara Frontier. So when I heard that Canadian citizens have been making it a destination, I wondered why.
West Seneca doesn’t have a Walden Galleria, a world-renowned waterfall or even a factory outlet mall. But it does have Mandy’s Café.
When I visited for dinner, I saw Ontario plates on cars in the parking lot and smelled Canadian cigarettes on the patio.
By the time I was done eating, I understood what put this tavern on their maps: familiar food made with care, easy on the wallet, with enough distinctive touches to make it memorable.
When News photographer Sharon Cantillon returned to photo-illustrate this review, she talked to people at tables inside and out. Both were filled with Canadian regulars. They’d caught on to what residents of West Seneca have known for years: Mandy’s is a place that will bring you back for seconds.
That this has taken place in what looks like an unremarkable roadside watering hole is anything but an accident. David Ohl and his wife, Mary, have been giving customers what they want for 30 years come December. He worries about the food while she worries about the customers, overseeing servers and circulating at suppertime to take the temperature of the room.
Mandy’s is centered on its bar, with a dining room extension on one side, and a patio on the other. On summertime Tuesdays and Thursdays, David Ohl grills on the patio, against the backdrop of live music. (The last patio date for the summer is Aug. 30.) No credit cards are accepted; this is a cash-only place.
At Mandy’s, burgers are 12 ounces of fresh ground beef, starting at $7.95 for the basic cheeseburger and appearing in a variety of guises including the ghost burger ($8.95), topped with incendiary hotter-than-habanero ghost pepper sauce, caramelized onions and cheese. Medium rare means rosy red, but the bun was pillowy enough to hold the juice.
Clams casino (6/$7.95) started with recently shucked bivalves, topped with crumbs studded with bell pepper and celery before crowned with bacon and broiled to order. Bourbon bits ($7.95) were chunks of beefsteak sluiced with sticky sauce and grilled, reminding me more of teriyaki than whiskey.
Chicken tenders (4 for $9.50) turned up plump and juicy after being hand-coated in crumbs and fried. No frozen poultry planks here. Those come with crinkle-cut or hand-cut thin-gauge fries, which came out on the pale side, but still acceptable.
Buffalo is a cheese-forward town, so I would point out that David Ohl is the sort of fellow who would just drop a hunk of provolone cheese on the flattop and let it bubble to crusty-golden, flip it over to let it sizzle on the other side, then scrape it neatly onto a plate and serve it up ($5.95). It comes with a pool of tomato sauce, two pieces of Italian bread, and no apology for bare-faced cheese worship.
Even better is Ohl’s addictive spin on the Buffalo stuffed pepper (see top image). He has dispensed with the whole stuffing-the-chile step. Instead, chopped fresh yellow Hungarian chiles are blended with a variety of cheeses. One scoop at a time, the mixture is rolled in breadcrumbs, then smushed down onto the griddle, into a cake. Browned on both sides, a pair goes for $6.95, with tomato sauce and bread.
One glorious sandwich at Mandy’s menu tops a properly unrestrained fried bologna sandwich with a hot pepper cake ($9.95). Layers of thin-sliced bologna are browned, the thick-cut onions are caramelized patiently. The result is a compelling sandwich that will make you feel like a cheat day even if you’re not on a diet.
Among its strengths, Mandy’s takes liver and onions ($13.95) seriously. That means a hard sear on two slices of liver, with a hint of pink left in the tender meat. Caramelized onions, mild-mannered gravy and bacon added up to a green light for liver lovers. (Tuesday through Thursday, small plates – like one slice of liver with the fixins, chicken Parmesan or a sirloin burger – go for $7.95).
A rack of lamb ($18.95) was turned into lollipop chops, spice-dusted and grilled to a juicy turn. It was the most highfalutin’ thing on the menu, but the grilling made clear that it fit. A beer-battered chicken breast ($12.95), fried and tossed in sweet chile sauce, tasted mostly of sticky sauce.
Among the side dishes, asparagus and broccoli stood out for appealing freshness, some bite left in them before they were dressed with vinegar, sugar and chile flake. Grilled corn salad was speckled with red pepper and onion. Mashed potatoes and beets were adequate.
Points to our server for not sugar-coating the dessert options, and letting us know that the kitchen was out of house-made offerings.
In its niche – everynight dining at family friendly prices in a tavern setting – Mandy’s excels on its own terms. Check out what the Canadians have discovered and see if you think it’s worth crossing a border – even if it’s only the Buffalo city line.
Mandy’s Café – 8 plates (out of 10)
Location: 3796 Clinton St., West Seneca (771-1553)
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: appetizers, $2.30-$7.95; sandwiches, $7.95-$10.95; dinner, $12.95-$19.95.
Wheelchair access: no
Gluten-free: can accommodate; ask server