I was recently thumbing through Buffalo magazine, a bi-monthly publication of the Buffalo News. It was an issue dedicated to food with all the usual stories on great local restaurants, chefs and other foodie features found in city magazines of this type. One set of pages was of particular interest though. A story by Erin St. John Kelly spoke of the blossoming Buffalo culinary scene featuring non-European food.
Buffalo’s growing refugee population has yielded great benefits for the Buffalo restaurant scene. Erin says, in the article, that she and her family moved to Buffalo from Brooklyn. As a food lover she describes searching the city looking for great food especially more unusual types. Her first such discovery was the Burmese “Sun Restaurant” run by Kevin Lin. She started cataloguing her food finds in a map to keep track of them. In 2012 she unveiled the “Map for Adventurous Eaters” with 52 ethnic food places (restaurants and stores). What she is describing as ethnic for the purpose of her map, except for a few instances, does not include the Western European ethnic food that Buffalo is used. The map is designed as a handy guide to the growing exotic Asian and African, and other foods brought to the city more recently, and being made more common, by Buffalo’s newest immigrants. St. John Kelly includes the most recent version of her map with a list of her food finds in the “Buffalo” magazine story. It shows 30 restaurants and 26 food stores. Some are long time favorites like Guercio and Sons but most are very recently created businesses offering the kind of food that Buffalo has never experienced before.
When I was in college Buffalo had almost no exotic food offerings or should I say it had none. Amy’s Place was about it for Middle Eastern food. I think there was one Indian restaurant in the entire metro and you had to go to Canada for decent Chinese food. It was a sad state of affairs. After college I moved to Boston and had my first Thai food. Thai food!? Who knew there was Thai food? Today the city boasts three Ethiopian restaurants, Bangladeshi food, Burmese food, Caribbean food, Vietnamese food and many others. Ethiopian food in Buffalo!?? This would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Buffalo is still in catch up mode for this kind of culinary offering but is catching up fast. The list of interesting of unusual food offerings was what first caught my eye but what I found most compelling was the map. The map shows clusters of these food establishments in some of the usual places like Elmwood and on Hertel, but most of them are in quite unexpected places. Four restaurants cluster along the Bailey Avenue corridor for instance. Could this suggest a resurgence in this long declining area? The largest group of these exotic food emporiums is located on the city’s poverty stricken West side. These restaurants and stores, serving up an entirely new product in Buffalo, represent a significant new investment in a part of the city that has mostly seen disinvestment over the last 50 years. It is amazing that it comes at the hands of even poorer people from the other side of the world.
Immigrants are an extremely valuable asset to a city. Immigrants by their nature tend to be those who are not satisfied with the status quo, those willing to take big risks to make their life better. They have picked up their lives leaving behind much and traveled long distances with no promise of reward at the other end other than their faith in our country. Buffalo benefitted mightily from past waves of immigrants, as has the United States. This new wave is bringing new energy to a city which has been stagnant for too long and they are doing it in parts of the city that need it most. Buffalo’s new immigrant entrepreneurs are taking advantage of Buffalo’s low costs (in the lowest cost parts of the city) and are turning it to their advantage. Where comfortable established Buffalo sees useless and dangerous old streets on the West Side, Buffalo’s newest residents see streets paved with the American dream. Buffalo needs to repay these people by supporting this new food treasure trove. If these places are as good as they look, that will be an easy debt to repay.
Note: The magazine article says that the map is intended as a fundraiser for the International Institute of Buffalo and seeks an app maker to donate services. The International Institute is the non profit that does most of the heavy lifting in settling new immigrants into the Buffalo community.