New York’s second-largest city is known for its long and frigid winters, its diehard football fans, and of course, its famous wings. But Buffalo’s culinary footprint extends further than just the iconic wings. It’s home to another signature delicacy that has yet to receive the same type of fame. I’m talking about the beef on weck sandwich.
On paper, this beef sandwich might not seem revolutionary. It’s a relatively simple affair, after all. But to locals like myself, the sandwich is ingrained in the fabric of Buffalo.
In a beef on weck, thin slices of slow-cooked roast beef are piled on top of a bun with horseradish (or gravy, depending where you get it) and au jus. But as Buffalonians know, it’s the bun that sets this sandwich apart. “Weck” is actually short for kummelweck and translates to “caraway bun” in German, as it's topped with a hefty sprinkling of kosher salt and caraway seeds.
The sandwich, much like the city, isn’t trying to be anything else . . . It doesn’t want to be a French dip or a Philly cheesesteak, much like Buffalo doesn’t want to be like New York City.
“The kummelweck is the Mecca of all roast beef sandwich rolls,” said Nate Geary, a radio host at Buffalo’s WGR station. “I’m not sure why it’s not a universally accepted vehicle for sandwich meat.”
Taking a bite into the soft, salty bun and enjoying the warmth of the melt-in-your-mouth roast beef plunges you into a level of comfort that’s needed in a city like Buffalo. The traditionally blue collar town is filled with people who work hard and want the satisfaction of a hearty, beefy meal. That sentiment, paired with the city’s harsh winters, makes hearty, warming foods like beef on weck a necessity.
The sandwich, much like the city, isn’t trying to be anything else—it is what it is. It doesn’t want to be a French dip or a Philly cheesesteak, much like Buffalo doesn’t want to be like New York City.
“What stands out to me is its simplicity,” said George Johnson, who heads local media company Buffalo Rising. “How aggressive flavors like caraway seeds, coarse salt, and a generous serving of horseradish are balanced with the cook, the thickness, and the fat of the beef.”
It’s not clear who invented the sandwich or what Buffalo restaurant first started selling it, but its origins are linked back to a German immigrant named William Wahr who came to the U.S. in the late 1800s. A restaurant in the suburbs of Buffalo called Schwabl’s has been selling beef on weck for more than 100 years and famously sold the sandwich for 15 cents at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901—long before Buffalo wings were even thought of.
Despite the murky history of who officially slapped together the tender beef with the salty bun, the legacy of the sandwich will always be associated with the Queen City. Many restaurants in Buffalo feature the beef on weck on their menus and have spawned several spin-offs including beef on weck-inspired egg rolls, sushi, and, of course, chicken wings.
At Bar Bill, which is considered one of the best wing spots in town, the beef on weck can be paired with a half order of wings. At Buffalo Brew Pub, you can find the sandwich under the “Buffalo Traditions” section of the menu. At Schwabl’s, you can get the sandwich smothered in gravy or swap the beef for hand-carved turkey or ham.
Much like attending an outdoor Buffalo Bills game in the middle of December, we don’t even think about how beef on weck isn’t a universal practice. We’re used to our chicken wings being remade across the country, but the beef on weck still feels sacred to our city.