The city of Buffalo, New York, is famous for its chicken wings. But tucked away is a greater culinary treasure coveted by bar-food fans in the know.
It’s called beef on weck. It’s a uniquely delicious sandwich, prepared with ceremonial reverence — usually in public view at a carving station behind the bar — while patrons watch, their mouths watering, while they enjoy their beer.
The juicy, savory sandwich is born of German-American tradition and is found only in the pubs, restaurants and butcher shops of western New York and a smattering of Buffalo Bills fan bars around the country.
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“Beef on weck remains a wildly underrated regional specialty in Buffalo,” said Buffalo History Museum spokesman Brian Hayden. “In any other city it would be billed as that city’s top feed.”
Yet “here in Buffalo,” he said, “it has had to live in the shadow of the Buffalo wing for the last 60 years.”
Beef on weck is made of tender top of the round. It’s carved by hand and placed carefully on a kummelweck bun, a local specialty kaiser roll with chunks of salt and caraway seeds baked into the top. Kummel is German for caraway seed.
The bun is then dipped in au jus and the beef is slathered with horseradish. Beef on weck is typically served with German potato salad, potato pancakes or pickled beets, among other options.
It satiates all the senses: salty, savory and spicy, the tender beef and soft roll punctuated by the gentle crunch of salt and seed.
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“It’s simple, clean flavors,” boasted Charlie Roesch, a fourth-generation German-American meat carver known locally as Charlie the Butcher.
He operates a chain of Charlie the Butcher eateries in and around Buffalo.
The savory beef and high notes of salt and caraway make it an ideal sandwich to wash down with beer — certainly a reason why beef on weck is a favorite food today in Buffalo’s thirstiest watering holes.
“Any bar worth being a bar in Buffalo has beef on weck — it is universal here,” said Clark Crook, owner of celebrated beef on weck landmark Bar-Bill Tavern, with locations in East Aurora and Clarence.
Beef on weck’s kingdom is rich in flavor, but not vast. The sandwiches are found as far west as Erie, about 90 miles away, and east to Batavia, about 45 miles away, said Clark.
Bar-Bill is a perfect place to pull up a stool among strangers and marvel at the almost religious spectacle of this hyper-local specialty.
The tavern’s beef on weck whisperer works quietly behind the bar at the carving station, pulling the beef from a steam table of au jus, and then gently carving the meat for each sandwich against the grain.
A red heat lamp illuminates the drama.
Bartenders whip past him slinging suds. Patrons gawk at the performance.
He then shapes the slices of the beef by hand into a perfect circle and pulls the bun out of a wooden bread box. He places the meat on the bottom of the bun and, using a large two-pronged meat fork, stabs the top bun and dips it into the au jus.
It’s a mesmerizing bar food experience.
Beef on weck sandwiches are made not with slices of meat, but with “petals of beef,” proclaimed Cheryl Staychock, owner of Buffalo beef on weck landmark Schwabl’s.
Her flowery phrase for top of the round is a testament to the esteem with which beef on weck is held in Buffalo’s high sandwich society.
Buffalo wings have a distinct origin story, right down to the day they were first prepared at the Anchor Bar in 1964.
The origin of beef on weck, however, is shrouded in culinary myth and lore.
Nobody knows where it was first made — and the mystery and mythology are part of its allure.
The experts agree the iconic sandwich predates the city’s spicy wings by as much as a century.
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Schawbl’s, which opened in 1837, has the earliest claim to making the sandwich.
“We are the home of beef on weck,” said Staychock of her venerable Buffalo eatery. But she makes no claim that Schwabl’s actually invented it.
Staychock is also a local historian.
She traces beef on weck’s origins to a German immigrant baker named Thomas Wahl. He arrived in Buffalo in the mid-1800s and brought with him, or modified for local tastes, the sandwich’s signature bun.
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He may have worked for Schwabl’s, she said.
But before him, the trail runs dry, despite her efforts to learn more from local libraries and county officials.
The kummelweck bun is what distinguishes beef on weck from other roast beef sandwiches around the country. The bun is also what makes the sandwich such a hyper-local regional specialty.
Only Buffalo-area bakeries make the signature roll.
Schwabl’s get its buns from D&L Bakery in Lancaster, just east of Buffalo.
Crook of Bar-Bills will not reveal the source of his superior rolls.
Charlie the Butcher finishes his buns in-house, topping the roll with a corn starch slurry as a glue, sprinkling it with salt and caraway, and then gently baking the spices into the bun.
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Beef on weck is a German-American tradition, Roesch noted, not a German tradition — much like corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day is an Irish-American tradition and not an Irish tradition.
“Germans don’t have a clue what is,” said Roesch.
“It’s a sandwich that embodies Buffalo,” said the History Museum’s Hayden.
He’s also author of the forthcoming book, “111 Places in Buffalo That You Must Not Miss,” scheduled for a 2023 release.
“It’s unexpected. It’s an everyday working-man sandwich that’s simple yet full of flavor.”
He added, “It surprises you in the all the right ways.”