Buffalo's best food blog: Buffalo Eats
UB alumnus guides all types of eaters to hidden and well-known restaurants
When Donnie Burtless went to UB, he only dined at two restaurants: Burger King and Young Chow.
He didn't eat eggs until he was 24 years old. His typical restaurant order was chicken fingers. He had no idea Chinese food in The Commons was vastly different from what natives serve in China.
In 2008, his taste buds were awakened. His best friend pressured him to branch out and try a gyro; Burtless was shocked to find he liked it.
But why stop at a gyro? With inspiration from Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations," Burtless set out to challenge himself to try all food in Buffalo, while keeping track of his new food adventures on a blog.
Since then, he has become the most notable Buffalo food blogger, dining at and reviewing over 340 Buffalo restaurants. BuffaloEats.org is a multimedia food database - including what started Burtless' blogging: non-expert restaurant reviews.
When Burtless began his personal challenge, he searched the Internet for blogs that could introduce him to Buffalo cuisine, but he was disappointed.
So, with the help of his wife - Alli Suriani - he created Buffalo Eats.
"I was trying to find somebody who was coming from my perspective," Burtless said. "Our thing is, I'm not an expert. I'm just a normal dude that wants to try restaurants. And that's my whole goal. We never call each other experts. We don't even like to use the word 'review' when we try a restaurant."
His blogs, which he calls "food porn," include an objective review of how the food tastes, pictures of the food, price range of the restaurant and the restaurant's ambiance and service. Through his blog, he wants to guide those who have the mentality he used to have.
"I always just assumed things were bad without even trying it, which is like a lot of people in Buffalo," Burtless said. "My whole goal is to just inform people to stop eating at sh*tty restaurants and just go out and get away from Olive Garden - go down the street to this awesome Turkish place, and this awesome Vietnamese place."
In the past three years, Burtless and Suriani have discovered the city's "best chicken wings" at Nine-Eleven Tavern in South Buffalo, a good date atmosphere at Elmwood's Saigon Caf?(c) and seasonal apple donuts from West Seneca's Mayer Brothers Cider Mill, among other gems.
Burtless, 28, is a Buffalo native and UB finance graduate of 2007. He and Suriani have known each other since high school, and they enjoy living in Allentown. He is easily recognized by the red buffalo tattoo on his forearm. Burtless is a financial accountant, but he is the most passionate when he talks about food in Buffalo. Mike Andrzejewski - owner of SeaBar, Cantina Loco and Mike A at the Hotel Lafayette - said Burtless' energy makes him "even more excited about food."
His hobby is more like a part-time job. He and Suriani review about three new restaurants per week. He records podcasts in his basement with various Buffalonians in the food industry, and is constantly looking for restaurants to keep up with his 25 to 30 posts per month.
Burtless' blog depicts the entire of experience of what it's like to go out to eat in Buffalo.
"It is an experience of the whole thing, not just a line-by-line critique of everything," Andrzejewski said. "He treats it as part of community, as part of a really social experience. And I think that's the most important part of his blog and his attitude towards writing about food - the entire experience and how important it is to the quality of life."
BuffaloEats.org includes Burtless' interviews with 92 people in the food industry. Pete Ciminoand Chris Dorsaneo, the owners of Lloyd's Taco Truck, once voiced their opinion in one of Burtless' podcasts - the future of Lloyd's and all other food trucks was uncertain in 2011 when lawmakers in Buffalo considered limiting where the trucks could park and operate.
"He's really opening a dialogue between cooks, chefs, restaurant people and the general public with his podcasts and his websites," Andrzejewski said. "He reaches out to people who are kind of like on the fringe and deserve some publicity, and people should know what they're doing. Don kind of helps bridge a gap between the public and the [restaurant owners and cooks] that are out there working really hard every day."
While he never left his comfort zone while eating lunch at UB, Burtless said students should try the dining options around North and South Campus - like Koreana, 99 Fast Food, Nette's Fried Chicken, Kung Food, Marco's Deli and Pho Saigon.
His blog took off after he began working with Buffalo.com on videos of food in January 2011. His traffic increased. After he added podcasts to his website, viewership took another jump. Traffic has doubled every year since he started, according to Burtless.
As he became better known, Burtless became a part of Buffalo's exclusive food circle. He was one of the few invited to Mike A at the Hotel Lafayette for a 10-course meal upon its opening in June. He was a part of the Channel 2 News panel, which chose the top 10 favorite restaurants in Buffalo in May 2012. Buffalo Eats was nominated for "best blog" in Artvoice's 2012 Best of Buffalo issue.
But with the new fame, he's stayed true to who he is: a self-proclaimed "newb."
"We honestly are just regular people writing completely honest reviews about food in the city we were born and raised in," Suriani said. "I think that's very important because that puts us on par with our readers. We are just like them, so I think they relate to our reviews because of it."
Burtless prides himself on his honesty.
He reviewed Bertha's Diner in May 2011 when Kenneth Kerr was still the owner.
"The review was very fair," Kerr said. "It touched on negative aspects, such as waiting for a table, and also shared a lot of the positive aspects."
Kerr also said Burtless's lack of food expertise makes him a valuable asset for readers.
"I loathe the term 'foodie,'" Kerr said. "Too many inside reviewers and many of the 'foodie' reviewers tend to spend too much time blowing smoke up their own asses. Donnie shares that his perspective is not from the kitchen or a culinary program ... most customers are not food experts and owners need to know what they are thinking."
Although he dreams of making his food reviewing in Buffalo a full-time job, particularly by integrating more restaurant and food video footage, Burtless wants to stay an amateur at heart.
"If you eat a meal and as soon as you eat it, all you're thinking about is what's right and what's wrong with it, I feel like that's really distracting," Burtless said. "I feel like it would really take away from your dining experience. I kind of hope that I always stay a 'newb,' like an amateur I guess, because once it's like your job you take it really, really seriously. I feel like that just ruins it."
Burtless just wants to make sure people in Buffalo take advantage of what's outside their comfort zones - and visit more than two restaurants when they're in college.