Buffalo, like many US cities, was built by immigrants. Today the city retains its position as a safe haven for foreign-born Americans and those seeking refuge.
Many of the Queen City’s signature dishes and food traditions stem from the influence of Buffalo’s first-wave immigrants. In the 1840s, the Irish arrived seeking relief from famine. Soon came Germans and Polish Jews who were followed by a surge of Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe. Over the last few decades of the 19th century, the city was teeming with newly settled Poles and Italians seeking independence, freedom, and a better life.
During the last half of the 20th century, Buffalo experienced a significant dip in newly-immigrated residents, but 21st century Buffalo more closely reflects its past. In the last 15 years, Western New York has become home to 70,000 new residents, most of whom are foreign-born and hail from countries like Afghanistan, Burma, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to name a few.
This influx has deliciously and notably transformed the city’s food scene.
We’ve created an anything-but-exhaustive summary of a few of the global restaurants operating in Western New York today, many of which are owned by immigrants. The volume of eateries like this has grown exponentially, and the scene itself evolves constantly as owners transition from pop-ups and market stands to food trucks and full-service sit-down restaurants. It can be hard to keep a current list of the most exciting new options, so we’re providing a cross-section of offerings both classic and cutting edge.
Real deal Mexican fare
In 2014 or so, a little place in Kenmore called La Davina opened, serving much of greater Buffalo its first taste of a traditional taco. Like many cities located closer to the Canadian border than the Mexican one, the Mexican food available here was highly Americanized. Thanks to a few folks of Mexican descent bravely illustrating to the masses just how irresistible their native cuisine can be, there’s been an explosion of restaurants serving tacos and Mexican food in the Buffalo area, some of which pulse with the heart and soul of Mexico.
2896 Delaware Ave., Kenmore, NY & 4125 Transit Rd., Williamsville, NY
Both La Divina locations turn out really great food. Tortas and tacos are favorites here, though the tortas are exceptional in that they feature a better roll than most of the tortas sold by the restaurant’s competitors. The counter service here is casual and swift. Limited seating is available for the no-frills consumption of your order, though many prefer to take their food to go. Both La Divina locations are affordable, fast, and reliably tasty locations for Mexican street food.
3958 Lockport-Olcott Rd., Lockport, NY
In Niagara County and a bit off the beaten path, Manito is a food truck with an elaborate outdoor setup intended to provide a reasonable level of comfort for diners in four-season weather. Manito’s menu asks guests to select a protein that is then folded into a taco, torta, burrito, quesadilla, or nachos. The lengua and tripe tacos are notably good, but really, so is everything else. It’s worth the drive.
Manito is close to (if not the) best Mexican food in the area and the hospitality provided as a complimentary side dish, so to speak, is unparalleled. If you’re dining with someone accustomed to tacos smothered in sour cream and processed cheese, the team at Manito will take it in stride and make sure your guest has what they need, despite how incongruous that particular request is with the authenticity of the food truck’s offerings.
3625 Genesee St., Cheektowaga, NY
Arguably the most popular of the authentic-leaning Mexican spots, Taqueria Los Mayas is a full-service restaurant with a dining room, bar, and an expansive menu of options that run the gamut from breakfast to dinner, including entrees, sides, desserts, and even kid-sized meals. Portion sizes are ample and served fresh: Los Mayas is a wonderful place for a relaxing Mexican meal for a group of friends or family.
More great spots for tacos and Mexican food
Middle Eastern cuisine beckons
Middle Eastern cuisine is something the area has in abundance, yet it remains unfamiliar to many locals. Falafel Bar, which first opened in a tiny cinderblock building on Elmwood Avenue, introduced many of the city’s denizens to fresh and flavorful Middle Eastern favorites such as tabbouleh and its namesake, falafel. Prior to that, these were offbeat offerings only occasionally spotted on the menus of the city’s Greek diners. Much like the taco explosion, Middle Eastern food has taken off here in terms of representation and options, but much of the region remains intimidated by its collective lack of familiarity with the cuisine. If you’re one of these folks, we’re here to tell you that you’re missing out.
3545 Sheridan Dr., Amherst, NY
At OR by Falafel Bar, we see the grown-up version of the business that first took root on Elmwood so many years ago. In its current location on Sheridan Drive, diners experience the food served to owner Oded Rauvenpoo throughout his childhood. The menu features dishes from Libya, Greece, Israel, and Iran. Here you can find delicacies unavailable elsewhere, including chicken baharat, brik, Israeli schnitzel, sabih from Iraq, and, on very special occasions, the elusive and highly Instagrammable Georgian khachapuri. With such an incredible array of choices, a nice dining room, and the ability to accommodate almost every dietary restriction, it’s no wonder Rauvenpoor and his family have been in business for so many years.
More great spots for Middle Eastern food
A wealth of Latin American options
Like the terms Middle Eastern food or Asian food, the classification of Latin American food is oversimplified and serves to water down the significant differences and similarities that exist between the food experienced in these massive areas of the globe, areas that in some cases incorporate thousands of miles and dozens of countries. Shifting borders, colonization, war, and global warming are just a few of the things that can influence a region’s native cuisine. That said, Latin American food, in all its iterations, is a welcome participant in the Western New York food scene. Thanks to some outliers on the West Side, Buffalo’s had access to some pretty great examples for a long time, including Vargas on Hudson Street and Niagara Cafe, which is still serving its wonderful rotisserie chicken today. Latin food in Buffalo most often means Dominican and Puerta Rican, though there are exceptions.
525 Niagara St., Buffalo, NY
One of the most stable businesses on Niagara Street, Niagara Cafe’s opening predates the neighborhood’s transition to the millennial stomping grounds it is today. It’s hard to keep a restaurant afloat for more than a decade, but Niagara Cafe has done just that by consistently serving really good food at fair prices. Takeout or stay in, but when you visit, be sure to order an extra chicken to take home for sandwiches tomorrow. Niagara Cafe is known for its rotisserie chicken as well as its excellent pastelitos and roasted pork. Tostones, yellow rice with pigeon peas, maduros, fried pork chops, bacalao— whatever floats your boat, everything here is straightforward, well made, and notably affordable.
345 W. Ferry St., Buffalo, NY
Formerly of the West Side Bazaar, Kiosko Latino is one of those restaurants that diners just can’t stop talking about. That word of mouth translated to popularity and patronage in great enough supply to push them through their growing pains in the business incubator and into their own brick and mortar. Serving up both Puerto Rican and Mexican dishes may also be part of the reason for their fervent following. The menu offers a melange of options from alcapurrias, tostones, and pastelillos to flautas, chimichangas, and tostadas. Kiosko Latino might not be breaking new ground, but when it comes to incomparably delicious-yet-simple renditions of these classics, you really can’t go wrong.
More great spots for Latin American food
Homestyle Chinese food and secret menus
In 2022, it’s likely news to no one that sweet and sour chicken, chow mein, and any number of other “Chinese” menu items devoured by generations of Americans are no more Asian than a sombrero. While there may always be a place for this kind of Chinese food in the hearts of Americans, once you’ve experienced the sort of dishes people in China cook for their families, it’s a lot harder to love a carton of General Tso’s. Lucky for Western New York, we are home to an increasing number of restaurants serving traditional Asian fare, and Chinese food happens to be one of the cuisines where there are a number of opportunities to eat unusual and unusually good dishes.
359 Somerville Ave., Tonawanda, NY
Located in an out-of-the-way spot in the Northtowns, Peking Quick One serves a menu of traditional Americanized Chinese food for those in its neighborhood who either haven’t caught on or hate change. Its secret menu, which hasn’t been a secret for many years now, is made up of homestyle dishes served in huge portions and packed with big, savory flavors you’ll find yourself craving with such frequency that you may consider buying a home nearby. Favorites include soft braised beef over melted onions, whole steamed branzino with a rich and delectable caramel-colored sauce, whole salt and pepper shrimp, dumplings stuffed with fragrant meats and vegetables, and an assortment of spicy selections that will blow the top of your head off in the best of ways. Its a no-frills counter-service setup with a large utilitarian dining room, which makes it the perfect place for a big and affordable family meal where everyone shares dishes and the food sits at the center of the table and the conversation.
3106 Delaware Ave., Kenmore, NY
Home Taste is a second location for the owners of Peking Quick One. Located in Kenmore, it is a smaller, more intimate restaurant focused on bao and dumplings. Home Taste serves what are, arguably, the best dough pockets in the area, though few locations make and sell these delicacies in Buffalo. Other popular items from the Peking Quick One menu can be found here, and while the service isn’t much more formal than it is at its sister restaurant, it is a little less “factory cafeteria” and a little more “average Chinese takeout” in vibe.
Don’t miss these popular spots for Chinese food
Burmese or bust
Many immigrants streaming into the city over the last 15 years are of Burmese descent, making Buffalo home to one of the largest populations of foreign-born Burmese people in the country. We’ve become so comfortable with the cuisine that, as a writer, I no longer have to describe the ingredients of its most popular dishes, a transition that took almost ten years. Many restaurants specializing in Burmese cuisine do what Peking Quick One does: they serve American-leaning iterations of Thai or even Chinese food to earn their bread and butter knowing the suburban population is less inclined to embrace the unfamiliar. But several years ago, one daring restaurateur who’d made his name selling sushi in a corporate setting changed all of that by launching Sun Cuisines.
1989 Niagara St., Buffalo, NY & 5759 Main St., Williamsville, NY
Kevin and Stephanie Lin launched the city’s first Burmese restaurant inside a neighborhood grocery store in 2010. Since that time, Sun has expanded to two full-service restaurant locations and indoctrinated an ample number of locals to the beauty of Burmese cuisine. Popular dishes include tea leaf salad, hot and sour deep-fried gourd (called buthi jyaw), and the most flavorful chicken and coconut soup ever (called ono koksware but spelled a million different ways). All of the dishes at Sun are full of nutrients and flavor but feature little to no trans-fat — healthful food is a big part of the Lins’ overarching mission. The couple’s comfort with sushi led them to develop another unique aspect of their business: sushi rolls made with black “forbidden” rice, an extra nutritious and flavorful rice. Together the Lins have shifted Burmese food into one of the region’s preferred dining options, spawning at least a dozen other restaurants serving Burmese fare. Sun, like many of its counterparts, also serves Thai favorites.
863 Tonawanda St., Buffalo, NY
Located in Buffalo’s Riverside neighborhood, Family Thai serves solid Thai food as well as sushi rolls, but it excels at Burmese fare. The tea leaf salad and other favorites are normalized, if you will, with their location on the menu. They are simply mixed in with popular Thai dishes rather than falling under a unique heading. The curry-scented dishes, cooked low and slow, are the most provocative, eliciting hunger pangs the second the scent wafts in your direction. “Egg Curry” (dish #B19) might not seem like it will be your next favorite dish, but once the confluence of paprika, onion, garlic, and cilantro have their way with you, you’re done for.
More top-notch Burmese bites
The Downtown Bazaar has it all
617 Main St., Buffalo, NY
Covered by Bon Appetit magazine and USA Today, it may have taken more than a decade for national publications to catch on, but Buffalonians have been obsessed—and rightly so—with the Bazaar since its inception.
Previously known as the West Side Bazaar at its former location, this incubator supported by WEDI, an economic development organization, nurtures new restaurateurs and retailers from their inception until it’s their time to leave the nest, supporting them with a variety of resources. This focus has allowed the Downtown Bazaar to provide a firm foundation for dozens of entrepreneurs over the years, many of whom go on to open brick and mortar restaurants.
What I haven’t said yet that may matter most to you as a diner, is that several of the stands inside the bazaar at any given time are best-in-class operations when it comes to the quality of the food. While the vendors within the bazaar change with some frequency, there is no shortage of enticing food.
Many—if not most—of the operators inside the bazaar would be included in the shortlists above, so save yourself the trouble of choosing one cuisine and head to their new downtown location to savor sundry scintillating servings of food with origins that span the globe.
Other noteworthy WNY restaurants serving global cuisine