Throwdown: The Best Pub Food in CNY
Cheers to any opportunity for a classic Throwdown, and to continuing the series on the best of Central New York. This edition, it’s all about the best pub food.
There’s something about pub fare that draws a crowd, especially a college student like me. When you go out with your friends, you want to have a good time, good drinks, and good food. There are the pub staples that satisfy just about everyone, and then there are the pubs that put their own unique twist on those staples. It’s rare, however, when a pub invests in its community by creating the staples out of locally sourced foods.
Last weekend, my friends and I sampled food at two pubs that use local ingredients to their advantage. First, we went to Empire Brewing Company in Syracuse and then headed to Bandwagon in Ithaca.
The Contenders: Locally-sourced, fan-favorite brewpubs
Empire Brewing Company tucked in on Walton Street has its own brewery on the premises. The company offers a wide variety of beers on tap, including a flight option with six generous glasses of any beer you choose, as well as specialty drinks and wine. It locally sources its vegetables, herbs and hops from the Empire Farm Brewery in nearby Cazenovia. Empire also serves locally raised angus beef, from Meadows Farms, its neighbor in Cazenovia. Guy Fieri visited this Syracuse favorite as part of his show, Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives in 2013, which only adds to their popularity. Locals know Empire for its brunch, which features live music on Sundays, from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. The featured favorite brunch fare includes Breakfast Poutine, Croque Monsieur, Cheese Blintzes, and Sweet Fire Scramble, to name a few. The brick walls, exposed pipe ceiling, and dimmed lighting create a fun, city-like atmosphere.
Bandwagon Pub, Farm & Brewery is a popular spot on Cayuga Street. Its awning leads guests down stone stairs to the pub. It has a laid-back ambiance, with dim lighting and colorful art adding a quirky personality to the place. Large chalkboards beer menus are constantly changing. Some of the beers on the ever-changing menus are Bandwagon’s and others hail from local breweries. Bandwagon’s specialty drink and wine menu match its beer menu in variety. Its weekend menu is the same, but adds Chicken and Waffles, and Bandwagon Waffles to offer brunch options. It offers vegetarian options to satisfy every foodie. Most of their food is locally sourced, and it lists its distributors on its website. The stone walls give it an underground feel and even with two bars and a sufficient amount of tables, it doesn’t feel too crowded (which may change depending on the time and day).
Each place has its own taste with what should be a pub food staple, and its features definitely varied. I tried some of the most popular pub foods at each spot and compared the foods and selection.
At Empire, we started the tasting with the truffle fries. The fries themselves were a nice consistency as they weren’t too soft like a steak fry, nor too greasy. Fries well-coated with the pecorino romano cheese, which provided the fries with a flavorful bite on their own. The house-made malt vinegar herb aioli is a dream for the vinegar-lover. Personally, I felt distracted from the other ingredients. Unfortunately, the lack of truffle oil on the fries disappointed us as well. After a few fries you taste the hint of the truffle that usually you can smell the truffle oil as the dish is approaching the table. With truffle oil being the main ingredient, I wanted to be able to taste the oil…not search for it.
The nacho fondue starter surprised us. When a dish is a fondue of some kind, you expect a plethora of warm melted cheese over a plate of nachos or some melted cheese at least. Instead, we received an oval ceramic dish filled with chili, grazed with a thin layer of melted cheese, and finished with scoops of pico de gallo, corn salsa, sour cream, and guacamole on top. Additionally, the bowl of chips was smaller than the size of the free bowl of chips you receive at a Mexican restaurant. Not quite large enough for people sharing fondue. The fondue was warm at best. There were huge chunks of meat in the chili which people would not be able to scoop with a chip. There was not enough cheese to consider it nachos. The chili was flavorful. If anything, it would be a nice combo for Super Bowl Sunday.
At Bandwagon, with the creative spins on dishes, we finally decided on the Classic Buffalo and Sesame-Sriracha Brown Butter Wings, and the Evie Bear (a fries dish).
Fries are the star of Bandwagon’s menu. The Evie Bear is an experimental dish unique to the pub. Fries are drizzled generously with the sesame-sriracha sauce, over the “award-winning mac and cheese,” and then finished with some dashes of chives. It sounds loaded, but it is the best pub food I ever tasted. The cheese sauce from the mac and cheese, mixed with that sesame-sriracha brown butter sauce, left our taste buds wanting more. We noted that we wished that there was more mac-n-cheese since the portion seemed lacking for this type dish. We felt we had to search quite a bit to reach the mac and cheese. Searching helped mix the cheese in, but we wanted more to accompany the fries and sadly, ran out. This dish is memorable though. Very unique and quite delicious.
The best pub food favorite tends to be wings, and Bandwagon knows wings. (Empire did not have wings on its menu.) These wings are meaty and extremely flavorful, not stingy on the sauce. Their classic buffalo sauce had just the right amount of heat, as any good buffalo wing should. The unexpected signature sesame-sriracha brown butter sauce is unique and delicious. With the first bite you get sweet, and as you prepare for the second, that heat greets you, without overpowering. In short, we were in wing heaven.
Both places offer their own innovative take on pub food. Empire is more of a wine-dine type pub while Bandwagon is more of a down-home type, as far as food is concerned. Each had pros and cons, however, Bandwagon stood out with their unique flavor combinations and interpretation of the classics. They stayed true to the staples of pub food, while putting their own flavorful spin on them. Pub food is all about having that food you can snack on, with your favorite brews or drinks, while enjoying a night out with your friends. And with that, Bandwagon completely delivered.