The city of Buffalo, New York is famous for its chicken wings. But hidden away is a greater culinary treasure coveted by savvy bar-food lovers.
It’s called beef on weck. It’s a unique and delicious sandwich, prepared with ceremonial reverence – usually in full view of the public at a carving station behind the bar – as patrons watch, mouth watering, while sipping their beer.
The juicy, salty sandwich was born out of German-American tradition and can only be found in pubs, restaurants and butcher shops in Western New York and a few Buffalo Bills fan bars across the country.
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“Beef beef remains a vastly underappreciated regional specialty in Buffalo,” Buffalo History Museum spokesman Brian Hayden said. “In any other city, it would be billed as the best stream in that city.”
Yet “here in Buffalo”, he said, “he had to live in the shadow of the Buffalo wing for the past 60 years”.
Beef is made from tender top rounds. It is hand-carved and carefully placed on a kummelweck bun, a local specialty kaiser bun with chunks of salt and caraway seeds baked on top. Kummel is German for caraway seeds.
The bread is then dipped in juice and the beef is covered in horseradish. Beef on weck is usually served with German potato salad, hash browns, or pickled beets, among other options.
It satisfies all the senses: salty, salty and spicy, the tender beef and soft roll punctuated by the sweet crunch of salt and seeds.
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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 restaurants in and around Buffalo.
The corned beef and high notes of salt and caraway make this an ideal sandwich to wash down with beer – certainly one reason why beef on weck is a favorite today in Buffalo’s thirstiest watering holes.
“Any bar worthy of being a bar in Buffalo has beef on weck – it’s universal here,” said Clark Crook, owner of the famous beef on weck, Bar-Bill Tavern, with locations in East Aurora and Clarence.
“The beef on the Weck Kingdom is rich in flavor, but not extensive. It’s only found in Western New York.”
Beef at Kingdom of Weck is rich in flavor, but not extensive. The sandwiches can be found as far west as Erie, about 90 miles, and east to Batavia, about 45 miles, Clark said.
Bar-Bill is a perfect place to sit among strangers and marvel at the almost religious spectacle of this hyper-local specialty.
“Beef on weck is prepared with ceremonial reverence, usually in public view at a carving station behind the bar.”
The tavern’s beef-on-weck whisperer works quietly behind the carving station bar, pulling beef from a au jus steamer table, then gently slicing the meat for each sandwich against the grain.
A red heat lamp illuminates the drama.
Bartenders walk past him throwing foam. The customers remain speechless in front of the spectacle.
He then shapes the slices of beef by hand into a perfect circle and takes the bun out of a wooden bread box. He places the meat on the bottom of the loaf and, using a large two-pronged meat fork, pricks the top loaf and dips it in the juice.
It is a fascinating bar dining experience.
Beef on weck sandwiches aren’t made with slices of meat, but with “beef patties,” proclaimed Cheryl Staychock, owner of Buffalo beef on weck, Schwabl’s flagship.
“Beef sandwiches on weck are made with ‘beef petals’.”
His flowery phrase for the top of the round is a testament to the esteem in which beef on weck is held in Buffalo’s sandwich high society.
Buffalo wings have a distinct origin story, right up to the day they were first prepared at Anchor Bar in 1964.
The origin of beef on weck, however, is shrouded in myths and culinary traditions.
No one knows where it was first made – and the mystery and mythology are part of its appeal.
Experts agree that the iconic sandwich predates Spicy City Wings by nearly a century.
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Schawbl’s, which opened in 1837, has the oldest claim to make the sandwich.
“We’re the home of beef on weck,” Staychock said of his venerable Buffalo restaurant. But she doesn’t claim that Schwabl actually invented it.
Staychock is also a local historian.
She traces the origins of beef on Weck to a German immigrant baker named Thomas Wahl. He arrived in Buffalo in the mid-1800s and brought with him, or modified to suit local tastes, the signature sandwich bread.
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He may have worked for Schwabl’s, she said.
But before he does, the trail dries up, despite his efforts to find out more from local libraries and county officials.
Beef beef “is unexpected. It’s an everyday sandwich, simple but full of flavor.”
The kummelweck bread is what sets beef on weck apart from other roast beef sandwiches in the country. It is also the brioche that makes the sandwich a very local regional specialty.
Only bakeries in the Buffalo area make the signature bread.
Schwabl’s sources its supplies from D&L Bakery in Lancaster, just east of Buffalo.
Crook of Bar-Bills will not reveal the source of his top rolls.
Charlie the Butcher finishes his rolls in-house, topping the roll with a cornstarch slurry as a glue, sprinkling it with salt and caraway, then gently cooking the spices into the bread.
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Beef on weck is a German-American tradition, Roesch noted, not a German tradition — just like corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day is an Irish-American tradition, not an Irish tradition.
“The Germans have no idea what it is,” Roesch said.
“It’s a sandwich that epitomizes Buffalo,” said Hayden of the History Museum.
He is also the author of the forthcoming book, “111 Places in Buffalo That You Must Not Miss,” slated for release in 2023.
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“It’s unexpected. It’s an everyday sandwich, simple but full of flavor.”
He added: “It surprises you in all the right ways.”