Buffalo Bill's in New Kensington shines with its wings and more
If you were going to start a successful restaurant, would you:
A. Convert an old gas station into a dining venue?
B. Convert a pizza oven into a chicken-wing baking unit?
C. Convert a steelworker into a restaurant owner?
Probably none of the above, but Buffalo Bill's Roadhouse owner Bill Callahan did all of those things — and he has succeeded in converting more than 700,000 customers into fans of his unique wings and sandwiches.
After years of instability in the steel-industry job market, Callahan was seeking security. He had always wanted to own a restaurant. After one year of planning, and trial-and-error tinkering of his famous pizza oven to cook the wings, he was ready to open in 1994.
“I wanted something totally different for the Alle-Kiski Valley. I stole the idea for the wings from Quaker Steak and Lube, and the sandwiches from Primanti's, but I made them my own by customizing them,” he says.
It started with baking the wings in the pizza oven and creating his 13 sauces.
“Many of my customers can't eat or don't like fried wings. Baking them creates a healthy and tasty alternative,” Callahan says.
But basing a business on chicken wings can be a costly risk — Buffalo Bill's serves 2,500 pounds a week. The price of chicken wings has quadrupled in the 19 years of Buffalo Bill's and doubled in the past 12 months — because of the drought in the Midwest.
He credits the loyalty of his customers and the unique product offerings for his continued success.
“But, by far, the main reason we have done well is the great staff, many who have been with me since the start,” he says. “I could leave for three months and the business would run smoothly.”
Although Buffalo Bill's offers beer and wine-cooler type drinks, Callahan does not have a full bar because he wants a family-style atmosphere. “I want families to feel welcome here and not worry about people over-drinking,” he says.
The restaurant often hosts the “Who's Who” of Valley politicians, and Callahan jokes, “There have been more issues settled here than in council chambers.”
There is nothing fancy about Buffalo Bill's.
The ambient lighting is supplied by neon beer signs, televisions (usually tuned to sports channels) and a wall of takeout beverages, creating a colorful backdrop.
Wild West memorabilia and youth sports team mementos line a shelf above the bar.
With seating for 40 at tables and at the bar, ample space avoids a crowded feeling. In the warm months, additional seating in an outdoor tent adds 50 more spaces.
A complete remodeling of the restrooms, which look like gas station bathrooms now, will be started this month.
For starters, we had a basket of Homemade Potato Chips ($3). Sprinkled with a special seasoned salt, these chips were an amazing start to the meal, or to complement a beer. One diner in our crew remarked, “Everyone should leave with a bag under their arm.”
The anchor of the menu is, of course, the chicken wings ($4.75 for 5 wings). With the outer edges charred, and baked perfectly all the way to the bone, these meaty wing-ding style offerings are outstanding. Coated with your favorite sauce, from five-alarm Blazing Inferno to Honey Mustard, they are must-haves.
We tried the Habanero Hot wings, which gave a delayed kick after the first bite, and the Honey Mustard wings, which provided a pleasantly smooth combination of the two sauces.
The varied sandwich menu has everything from cheese steaks to Italian hoagies, and fish to the Fried Jumbo sandwich. We chose the Geronimo ($7.95), layered with roast beef, cheese, handcut french fires, tomatoes nad homemade vinegar-based cole slaw on fresh Italian bread from Mazziotti's Bakery in Arnold. This huge offering requires a big appetite and a big mouth to conquer it. Outstanding.
Five dinner salads are offered, and be forewarned, they are huge. One person in our group was stuffed and took half of her Alaskan Salmon Salad ($8.95) home for the next day's lunch. A generous portion of grilled and seasoned salmon covered the iceberg lettuce, french fries, cheese and vegetables. Healthy and delicious.
The BBQ ribs ($11.95 for a half-rack), were tender, pull-apart delicacies of pork heaven. Baked with a semi-spicy sauce, the ample meat was shared by two. Served with homemade fries and cole slaw, this truly makes a great meal. The sauce was so good, one diner didn't mind licking every finger to get the last taste — although hand wipes are provided.
Buffalo Bill's has become a bit of an institution among New Kensington eatery choices. The food is unique, the service is outstanding, and the staff members strive to do what they do with perfection.
Eric Felack is a photographer for the Valley News Dispatch.
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