Among all that hoopla sits Native New Yorker, a franchise out of Buffalo, N.Y., via Phoenix. Chains are not my favorite places to dine, but Native New Yorker was a pleasant surprise: We enjoyed some darn good food, a slightly frantic but friendly atmosphere and a plethora of big-screen TVs.
To say that the place was crowded would be an understatement. We were informed that there would be a 45-minute wait to sit in the dining room, but that service was available in the bar, which is where we headed.
The cavernous bar room was packed as well, but there were two seats available at the bar. The two bartenders were so busy that it took a while to get waited on, so we watched TV. Huge TVs hung on every wall (I think I counted 18), all tuned to what seemed like every kind of sporting event imaginable. Music blared from above. People were chatting, playing electronic games and, of course, eating and drinking.
We ordered a couple of beers and perused the humungous menu. We ordered the two foods that made Buffalo famous: beef on 'weck ($6.95) and wings (six traditional medium and seven pineapple-teriyaki wings, 55 cents a pop). There are plenty of choices with the wing flavors (including strawberry), and you can order as many or as few as you want. We also ordered the house asiago-cheese potato chips ($5.25) and the Friday-night-only fish fry ($9.95). Our sides were curly fries and onion rings ($1 extra).
The chips arrived first. These were great! Idaho spuds had been sliced-paper thin, fried to a golden turn and ever-so-lightly sprinkled with asiago.
The wings soon followed. The traditional wings were just hot enough to make the lips burn, and the pineapple teriyaki wings were drenched in a thick sauce offering a fine balance of the teriyaki and pineapple. All were ultra-crispy, moist and cooked through to the bone. They were served with a side of ranch dressing and the requisite carrot and celery sticks.
Things slowed down after that--we waited a long time for our food, although we were kept entertained by all the sports and the interesting people-watching. It wasn't until the bartender apologized and said the manager was "on the order right now" that we started wondering what was taking so long.
The manager delivered our entrées and apologized profusely about the delay, offering us another drink, which we declined. I appreciated her concern; it showed someone was paying attention.
The beef on 'weck was disappointing. Not only was the beef dry, but the famous kummelweck roll, which is said to be homemade, was also dry and lacked the chewiness for which the roll is known. Thank goodness for the au jus on the side. The curly fries that came with the sandwich were passable.
My fish, on the other hand, was hot and crispy. A crunchy batter surrounded two pieces of snowy white haddock. The slaw side was OK but lacked any punch.
We skipped dessert.
We returned for lunch a week later--and found the place crowded again. We ate in the dining room this time. Kids were everywhere--some well-behaved, others literally screaming.
John ordered the all-American hot dogs with homemade potato chips ($6.95) and a tap Bass Ale ($4). I headed down the Italian side with the baked meatball hoagie ($8.95).
The room was oddly lit with lots of red tones and more big-screen TVs: so many, in fact, that if there was anything else on the walls, I didn't notice.
There were some service issues. We got sprayed with glass cleaner as we walked in the door; our server placed our glasses on the table with her fingers at the top of the glass; the busboy placed the dish tray on the floor and failed to pick up pieces of paper; another server leaned against the top of a chair as she took an order. When I called to find out Native New Yorker's hours, three calls resulted in three different answers. Granted, this isn't four-star dining, but those fine little points can make service polished and professional.
The dogs were just about as all-American as they could get: all-beef, jumbo-sized and grilled, which only enhanced their flavor. The potato chips again pleased, even without any enhancements.
My meatball hoagie didn't look like any other hoagie I've ever seen: On my plate sat an 8-by-2-inch mound of bread dough. Peeking out from slits in the dough were golf-ball-size meatballs and mozzarella. It had all been baked to a golden brown and was impossible to pick up. A small cup of marinara sauce was on the side. A good meatball is a tough thing to make, but these were tender and spiced perfectly. The sauce was also well-made. It had great texture and seasoning. I could barely finish half of the hoagie.
We ordered the cherry pie and the brownie sundae slammers ($1.99 each), shot-glass-size versions of the dessert offerings. Sadly, these didn't quite cut it. The cherry pie was nothing more than a crumble crust and ordinary red-cherry pie filling. The brownie was almost too hard to break into bites.
Yes, Native New Yorker is a franchise restaurant, but at its roots are a mom-and-pop place--and that may be the secret to the restaurant's success. Most of the food tastes as good as it looks, and the atmosphere is fun for families or a group of friends.