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COMMENTARY

Why the Taste of Buffalo has become the region's signature event

The City of Good Neighbors ought to be called the City of Good Eaters.

This is the place whose passion for food helped propel a homegrown taste sensation around the world. Then when a chicken wing festival was referenced in the film "Osmosis Jones," Buffalo made the throwaway line a nationally known event, filling a stadium and 60,000 bellies.

Yet the National Chicken Wing Festival is but an appetizer compared to the Taste of Buffalo. Described as the largest two-day food festival in the United States, each day is, by itself, the largest event in the Buffalo civic calendar.

Last year’s crowd estimate was 450,000 people over both days. That’s bigger than the Allentown Art Festival, the Bills home opener, First Night, the Turkey Trot. Perhaps it is fair to say that what unites us more than anything is a hearty appetite, and we seem to have an endless one for the Taste of Buffalo.

The success of Buffalo’s biggest buffet is testament to its ability to offer something to make darn near every type of eater happy. Nearly 60 restaurants and food trucks, with three or four choices each, cover a lot of ground.

[Braised ribs to beignets: 10 foods to try at the 2019 Taste of Buffalo]

Its organizers have stoked the value for returnees by striking a balance between newcomers and longtime participants. The event’s big-tent approach when it comes to food offerings has meant “there’s something for everyone” fulfills its promise.

Ribs and meatballs, burgers and chicken breasts – there has never been a shortage of meaty satisfactions. At today’s Taste, vegans aren’t forced to make do with french fries and watermelon slices.

Consider the black bean fiesta bowl at Cali Eats, Tent 1, which is loaded with corn kernels, peppers, onions and pico de gallo lively with fresh-squeezed lime. Cecelia’s Ristorante, Tent 15, has vegan eggplant “Parmesan” with marinara sauce and fresh basil. Even old-school Buffalo standards are seeking fans of plant-based diets: Mister Pizza has a vegan pie at Tent 23.

There has always been a strong showing of Buffalo classics, the pizza and wings, weck and fried fish, that are so much of the area’s collective diet on the other 51 weekends of the year.

At the Taste, enough creative alternatives are presented that eaters with placid palates can effortlessly take a walk on the wild side.

Newcomer Dalmatia Hotel, Tent 7, is having a one-stand wingfest with mojito lime, lavender and honey Creole wings. 716 Food and Sport, Tent 42, is backing up its Buffalo macaroni and cheese with a grilled weck wing.

[Related: Hotel Dalmatia among Buffalo's neighborhood dive bars]

Pile on the pierogi at Chrusciki Bakery, Tent 37, in savory (potato and onion) and sweet, with an apple-cinnamon version. Ru’s Pierogi, Tent 43, reimagines Buffalo classics with beef on weck and banana pepper versions.

The Buffalo restaurant landscape has undergone a well-documented revolution in the past 10 years, both in locations – think downtown – and choices – think West Side Bazaar. But it's also fair to say that a segment of the dining population likes to stick to the familiar and may feel too overwhelmed to exit their comfort food zone to try the new and different.

[Related: 10 new restaurants to grace the 2019 Taste of Buffalo]

But convenient access to international thrills make the festival such an easy way for the timid to broaden their horizons. People who would never drive to a Jamaican restaurant can fork over 5 tickets at Caribbean Experience, Tent 56, and find out what the fuss over jerk chicken is all about.

I don’t get as excited about festival eating as I once did. As someone with a deep and abiding love of restaurants as an art form, I usually prefer to encounter the work of talented cooks in a setting that maximizes the possibilities of relaxation.

I’m a real sucker for air conditioning, a place to set my plate, and a general lack of insects.

But you can't argue with success.

Sure, the parking is, um, competitive, but you only need to do it once, and you can sample 57 varieties of the Buffalo restaurant, saving you wear and tear on your automobile and 56 parking rants.

It gives anyone with an appetite for exploration a nibble of what Buffalo has to offer, a virtual road map of Buffalo area eats. So in between bites, raise a glass to the communal table the Taste of Buffalo has become.

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