Caressed by a lively breeze, the masses turned out under flawless skies on Saturday for a little Taste of Buffalo.
Couples, families and assorted gaggles filled Delaware Avenue and Niagara Square, weaving through lines of folks waiting to trade tickets for tastes and the occasional billow of barbecue smoke.
Food judges drawn from media, politics and business professions voted for 14 categories. As The Buffalo News’ designated eater, it fell to me to choose one of the 200 or so dishes as Gusto Best in Show, and my editors asked me for my own favorites in five categories.
Together, they would make an outstanding meal. Here’s what I picked, and why.
Best in Show: Dinosaur Bar-B-Que’s pork spare ribs
Nothing brings out the finicky in me like barbecue. My lifelong adulation of the smoked meat arts has left me unable to fully enjoy pork spare ribs that are gummy, chewy, or slathered in artificial-smoke-flavored corn syrup products to camouflage their lack of smoke absorption.
One bite of Dinosaur’s ribs and I remembered that although the company has expanded to eight cities, including Buffalo, it started on the motorcycle festival circuit. Finished on the grill to crisp up the peppery crust and help juices run, it was on my plate before it could cool. A bite took sweet, smoky pork off a clean bone, and I was in pig heaven.
[Photos: What The News' judges ate at the Taste of Buffalo]
Favorite meat: Hilltop Restaurant’s lager-braised short ribs
Luxurious, silky beef stewed to tenderness in Flying Bison Larkin Lager beer is topped with shaved onions tossed in seasoned flour and flash-fried. The meat, imbued with reduced cooking juices, along with the richness of the cut, rivals the most comforting pot roast ever.
Finish up and you just might want more; the Lockport restaurant is serving a two-rib portion as a regular entrée, with cheddar-scallion mashed potatoes and garlic green beans.
Honorable mention: Pork-stuffed smoked jalapeños from BW's Barbecue, Water Lily Café’s moo ping pork skewer and Pizza Amore’s Buffalo chicken slice.
[Related: Hilltop among The News' suggestions for the Taste of Buffalo]
Favorite seafood: Carmine’s crabcake-stuffed shrimp
This dish has already won a sea of Taste awards. The thumb-sized shrimp, split open to receive a crabcake injection and dabbed with spicy mayonnaise, aren’t anyone’s dark horse. But if the seafood twofer is a two-bite indulgence that translates perfectly to eating on asphalt, what’s a critic to do?
Honorable mention: Patina 250’s Thai watermelon gazpacho with marinated crab and shrimp, garlic grilled shrimp skewers from Alex’s Place and Flaming Fish with its haddock hoagie.
Favorite vegetable dish: Osteria 166’s grain bowl
A refreshing salad that makes eating healthy easy, even if everyone around you is gnawing bones and downing deep-fried whatnots. Cabbage, carrot, arugula, chickpeas and quinoa in aromatic lemon pesto; it’s lively and light yet protein-packed, giving it fill-you-up power to boot.
Honorable mention: India Gate's chana masala, Niagara Café's maduros, caramelized plantains and heirloom tomato and cucumber gazpacho from Sear.
Favorite fruit: Sweet Melody’s watermelon-strawberry sorbet
The Sweet Melody tent always makes July in the sun feel better, but this frozen fruit confection plays a symphony of summer refreshment. Melon, berry, then herbal aromas from a fresh mint sauce makes it a breath of fresh, cool air.
Honorable mention: Souped Up’s watermelon gazpacho and Sweet Life Dessert Experience’s strawberry waffle.
Favorite dessert: Cheesy Chick’s Nutella panini with fruit and whipped cream
Toasted cheese sandwiches are adored for their buttery crispiness and their oozy interiors. That goes double for this sweet confection. Nutella chocolate-hazelnut spread holding fresh blueberries and a swath of freshly housemade strawberry jam gets a ride on the griddle, which warms the entire proceedings enough to make me wish for chocolate blueberry pie. Then it’s swaddled in whipped cream, because that’s what pie should always have.
Honorable mention: Chocolate Bar’s chocolate mousse brûlée, Rolling Cannoli's sponge candy caramel cannoli and Cheesecake Guy’s Not Your Mother’s PB & J cheesecake.
In closing, two thoughts on ways the event might be better.
In restaurants, customers with dietary restrictions of a religious, dietary or aesthetic nature can inquire about the details of dish preparation by quizzing a server.
Is the fried fish coating gluten free? Is there any cheese in the quinoa salad? In the fast-paced world of festival vending, extended colloquies can be difficult. A poster off to the side of each tent listing ingredients for each dish, not just components, could deliver useful information without taxing the workers who have their hands full feeding unending lines on a blazing afternoon.
The second: Can we figure out how to get City Hall and its observation deck opened for tours during the event? The greatest free experience in downtown Buffalo seems like a good fit for such a community-oriented event.