674 Ellicott St, Buffalo, NY 14203
Web: Ulrich's Tavern
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American Buffalo German Irish
"Both of the sausages came out grilled and so delicious that either of us could have eaten both - and more - without pausing. Yet the crab cakes truly disappointed both of us."
After serving customers for 141 years - over 100 years under the current name - it's not entirely surprising when a business celebrates another birthday. Yet given the physical and demographic changes wrought around Ulrich's Tavern at Ellicott and Virginia in Buffalo, survival wasn't a foregone conclusion: it's actually a testament to many owners that it's still around, serving drinks from the "Irish" bar in its front, entertaining customers with a performance stage in its center, and dishing out German and American dishes from its back. But is Ulrich's such a reflection of Buffalo that it deserved to be the single culinary destination of celebrity food writer Anthony Bourdain back in January? Other than the fact that it happens to have both Beef on Weck and wings on its brief menu, is this really the sort of place to take a famous gourmand?
As it turns out, Ulrich's has three draws: ambience, personality, and a menu of beer and food choices that reflects old Buffalo - ethnic, yet relaxed. Though its exterior is about as unspectacular as any of the boarded-up places you'll find only streets away, the interior is homey, substantially made from aged woods that run from wall to wall, matching the furniture, bar, and stage. It feels a little like a German beer hall, yet caters to everyone from couples and small families to local characters; a live and good Irish band was performing on the evening of our visit, and someone at the table closest to the band was trying to chat them up. Friendly servers were conscientiously patrolling the floor, and making obvious efforts to gain repeat customers with attentiveness and common decency.
But when we'd finished our meal and talked about whether we'd actually come back, our answer was qualified: not so much for the food, but perhaps for the drinks and the entertainment. We enjoyed the music and the Czech Pilsner Urquell beer we ordered with our meal, and moreover, we didn't have any trouble choosing things to eat even though the menu may have been short - 10 appetizers, 7 salad and sandwich options, and 11 entrees, some overlapping due to similar or identical ingredients. A list of specials, largely American fried fare, was also available.
Following a basket of complimentary and fine rye bread and butter, we kicked off our meal with a large, multi-item appetizer called the Crabby German ($16), a set of two homemade crab cakes that normally go for $11 without accompaniment, but are bundled here with two sausages of the patron's choice. Both of the sausages we picked, a light grey veal Weisswurst and a bright red beef link, came out grilled and so delicious that either of us could have eaten both - and more - without pausing. They were actually difficult to feel good about sharing. Yet the crab cakes truly disappointed both of us: they were obviously made from real crab meat, but they'd been mixed with a horseradish that each of us disliked, differing only in how much we thought it blemished the crab flavor. One of us found it an unpleasant distraction, while the other felt that it drowned out the taste of crab; neither of us would order these again. Field greens on the plate were plain, seemingly included for color, but an included slaw was nice.
Entrees were also somewhat of a mixed bag. We sampled the Roast Beef on Weck sandwich platter ($9), served with a generous portion of unseasoned curly fries, and liked but didn't love both parts of what arrived. Thanks in part to a tall kummelweck roll, the sandwich stood high on the plate, impressing us with its combination of perfectly fresh bread, coarse salt, and an appropriate quantity of caraway seeds. Also good was the generous stack of thin-sliced, top round beef, served hot, though the dip - "with au jus," as the menu says - was actually a semi-thick gravy, and again a distraction from the otherwise very good item. Unlike the crab cakes, we'd order the sandwich again; the curly fries were properly cooked and in no way offensively greasy, but otherwise unremarkable.
Then there were the other items. In order to sample both the Schnitzel, which appears in 5 of the 11 entrees ($13-$17), and the Sauerbraten ($16), which is in two of the entrees, we picked the German Combo Dinner ($17), which offers some of each along with either German or American side items; we picked the German ones. Billed as having been marinaded for seven days, the Sauerbraten wasn't very good - brisket-like except in flavor and color, it was grayish red, served in chunks, semi-dry, and surprisingly weak on taste, a light brown gravy on top adding more flavor and moisture than the light vinegar marinade that was vaguely apparent in the meat. One of us had a couple of chunks and wouldn't bother with the rest, the other went through as many pieces as he could stand, then stopped. Rarely do we leave beef unfinished, but we couldn't bring ourselves to keep going.
The Wiener Schnitzel was better, though unremarkable. Delivered properly golden, this pounded, breaded veal cutlet was served traditionally with a slice of lemon, and atop a bed of appropriately sour, nicely shredded sauerkraut. While its breading was a little soggy, we found it easy to eat, though on the small side relative to the Sauerbraten. Additionally, as we'd ordered the plate German-style, it arrived with a small bowl of very mild red cabbage and a large portion of spaetzel - slightly slimy egg noodles, with more of the gravy we'd had before. Both were passable.
All in all, Ulrich's is a fine but not remarkable restaurant if judged objectively on the food; there are far better places to visit for weck, beer, or German fare locally, and between its dicey parking and location, it certainly wouldn't be the first place we'd choose to show off anything about Buffalo to visitors from outside the area. That said, it's the sort of place that has regulars for a reason: between the generally fair prices, ambience, and live entertainment, Ulrich's has enough to offer that we can understand why some people who visit once might visit twice. Our gut feeling is that Bourdain wouldn't be among them, but it's a nice neighborhood haunt, nonetheless, and a place that deserves commendation for sticking around when relocation would have been easier.