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Artvoice Weekly Edition » Issue v10n10 (03/09/2011) » 3 Guys Walk Into a Bar...

Charlie O'Briens

(photo by Daryl P. Brothers)

Charlie O'Briens

865 Elk St., Buffalo

by Donny Kutzbach
who walked in with...

Ivan Gonzalez
(educator at Buffalo schools)

Daryl P. Brothers
(freelance photographer)

I love South Buffalo, and Charlie O’s is South Buffalo through and through. Like so many joints up and down Seneca and South Park, or tucked away on the many streets that shoot off of them, it is a classic, no-frills, Irish-American tavern. The main bar room is brick and wood with dart boards, a jukebox, a friendly bartender, and local spirits drawn together. It all makes for an unpretentious and inviting atmosphere.

The impressive selection of drafts—or “draughts” as you are almost legally obliged to spell it in an Irish bar—will impress even the most uppity beer snob. But because it’s not a hoity-toity joint, classic Genesee is also an option at Charlie O’s.

I settled on the Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA and made it my standard-bearer for the night. Ivan sampled the always reliable local Flying Bison Rusty Chain, while Daryl stuck with a glass of ice water and a hot mug of coffee for the balance of the evening.

We ambled back toward the dining room, where we found a family-friendly mix of fish-fry getters and hearty eaters concentrating on the wealth of food offerings at Charlie O’s, while the happy hour party people lived it up in the front.

We managed a table with river view. Okay, it’s the Buffalo River, but looking out at its snowy banks from the warmth of the dining room has an undeniably charming elegance.

Truth is, Charlie O’Brien’s is sort of an unlikely candidate for the “Three Guys Walk Into a Bar” column. It’s definitely not a classic dive bar. It’s not really so far off the beaten path. Furthermore, it’s actually a pretty well known spot in local circles.

We are here because there are bigger issues to settle. In fact, in Buffalo, for many folks, the stakes don’t get much higher: We’re here to eat chicken wings. In fact, we are trying to find the area’s best chicken wings.

Born and bred in Western New York, I’ve realized in my 30-something years that chicken wings are a parochial phenomenon.

You talk to almost any local person, and very few will say that the best wing is the one served at the legendary home of the chicken wing or the jumbo joint that ships the most of these wonderfully hot and greasies across the country on Superbowl Sunday. For most Buffalonians, the best wings are usually the ones served at their favorite neighborhood place.

Enter Daryl P. Brothers. He is a proud South Buffalo boy for life, and he has long insisted that Charlie O’Brien’s wings were the best to be had.

Man can’t live on wings alone, supposedly. So, Ivan ordered a French onion soup that proved to be the kind of cheese-covered, sodium-rich broth perfect for a sub-30-degree winter night.

Just for good measure, and because it’s wrong to only have wings in Buffalo, we ordered up a beef on weck to split three ways. The weck arrived dry and a cup of au jus was needed to wet it down. Once we’d done that, and added a ton of Charlie O’s horseradish, the bar’s take on the Queen City delicacy proved to be upper echelon.

We were not here for wecks, however. Wings are the thing.

At Charlie O’s there are three distinctive types of wing: Smitty’s, traditional Buffalo, and Charlie-style.

The traditional Buffalo wings pretty much stand up to the best of anywhere in Western New York. We ordered them hot and crispy, and they delivered on both counts. The large wings were tasty, and the spicy outer skin proved to be just the right mix of brittle and chewy—a tough balance to achieve.

Now that would be enough to put Charlie O’Brien’s in the books among the greats, but it only got better. The traditional recipe was merely the opening salvo in Charlie O’s battle to be the best.

Charlie-style wings are a whole other experience. They are a little like traditional Buffalo style but with a crunchier, fried-chicken-type coating. These sensational hot, breaded beasts will have you skipping the blue cheese in order to really experience the taste overload. Ivan decided the Charlie-style were his favorites.

Oh, but the Smitty’s!

Daryl regaled us with childhood stories about how his mother would go out bowling and return home with chicken wings from the original (now long defunct) Smitty’s bar and restaurant. This is the recipe that Charlie O’Brien’s replicates, and it is heavenly.

Imagine part butter, part nutmeg, and some other mysterious, perhaps otherworldly spices. I can’t be sure but that’s what Smitty-style wings immediately taste of. At first there’s an overwhelming richness before the subtle bite of the nutmeg hits. Even the most hardened wing enthusiast is liable to be amazed by the virtue and elegance of Smitty-style wings.

The ongoing quest for best wing in Western New York carries on, but Charlie O’Brien’s has certainly left a mark on us. The next comers need be inspired to best them.

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