Buffalo, New York is known for one major contribution to our national food consciousness: Buffalo wings, available on just about every bar menu from coast to coast. But few outside of the city can claim to have tasted, or even heard of the area's most-loved sandwich: beef on weck.
Weck is an abbreviation of Kümmelweck (sometimes spelled kimmelweck), a roll covered with caraway seeds and rock salt. Stick freshly-carved roast beef in the roll, with lots of fresh horseradish and a bit of jus, and it's a simple but perfect creation and a favorite at taverns and restaurants all around the city. "The key to a good beef on weck is freshness," says Buffalo-based journalist Lizz Schumer. "The rolls will turn rock-hard after just a day, and the beef must be on the rare side, preferably carved right off the bone."
The filling. Don't expect deli-style cold cuts from a good beef on weck; freshly carved meat is key. So is the horseradish; horseradish-laced mustard is another option. "For me, a little spice is paramount," says Schumer. "It opens up the rich beef and balances out the salty roll well."
The bread. Kümmel means "caraway," and a good Kümmelweck roll has lots of it. The seeds should be sprinkled on top of the bread with a healthy dose of salt—not just a few grains here and there, but a coating of large crystals like you'd see on a pretzel. While the rolls are crusty, good ones are softer on the inside, maximizing how much beef jus they can soak up.
Where to get one:
Charlie the Butcher got its start as a family butcher shop under founder Charlie Roesch in 1914, but has evolved into a restaurant with locations across the city. Beef on weck is their enduring specialty; watch your beef carved right in front of you as you wait. Says Schumer, "The beef is fresh and hot, the rolls are appropriately chewy and it's become a household name in Buffalo."
Bar Bill Tavern can be confusing for first-timers. If you want a table, don't look around for a hostess; tip off the bartender, who'll keep the wait list. Regulars drink from their own beer mugs, which are displayed behind the bar when not in use. Locals know that beer and beef on weck are a natural pairing--you need something refreshing to cut all that salt, after all—and Bar Bill Tavern's beef on weck is excellent, with freshly sliced beef, properly crusty rolls, and sinus-clearing horseradish. Get a side of wings, too; they're among the best in the area.
Seabar, a local sushi bar, has created one of the most improbable beef on weck variations we've ever heard of: a beef on weck sushi roll. ("It's truly fantastic," vouches Schumer.) There's lightly seared beef in the middle, beef carpaccio wrapped over the top, with caraway seeds and coarse salt sprinkled on there and a horseradish mayonnaise—every one of the classic components.
Schwabl's is the classic choice for beef on weck, a low-ceilinged tavern that, as you'll see emblazoned everywhere, has been around "since 1837." Beef is carved to order for each sandwich, and little tubs of horseradish sit at every table. (Schwabl's is temporarily closed due to structural damage, but hopes to reopen soon.)