Roast beef may be called the Ur-snacksandwich ingredient, it having likely been the meat first placed between two slices of bread at the command of John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich ca.1740, the Earl finding himself hungry in the midst of a prolonged gambling binge, but not wanting to pause for the usual twenty courses.
The English have always been good hands at beef (see above: ox being roasted in honor of Queen Victoria), but the USA is where the roast beef sandwich has taken on a delightful variety of local guises, coast to coast.
1. ROAST BEEF ON A ROLL
A familiar request at thousands of delis and takeouts, daily. The sandwich sold by Roll N’Roaster, a Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn mainstay since 1970, would be completely recognizable by the Earl: several slices of beef, a roll split in two. With whatever you want on it. Fast food at its finest, if you want to go out; the easiest roast beef sandwich of all to fix at home.
Arby’s, found nationwide, provides a simulacrum of this specifically Brooklyn Roll N’Roaster experience, in the way that blue cheese dip provides a simulacrum of Gorgonzola dolce.
2. THE PHILLY CHEESESTEAK
Once a fairly obscure sandwich found only in and around the City of Brotherly Love, since the 1980s the Philly Cheesesteak has become known and appreciated nationwide — even if most versions outside of Philadelphia have been corporatized, made family-friendly, or “improved” with waygu beef slices, artisanal semolina, and the like.
Here’s what you need for your Philly Cheesesteak: 1) a long hero/Italian sandwich roll, unseeded; 2) roast beef sliced thin as onion-paper, not necessarily Choice grade; 3) cheese, preferably in the form of Cheez Whiz, although provolone will do.
Countless politicians and celebs over the years have fallen prey to showing up for their cheesesteak photo ops only to ruin the entire thing by asking for something along the lines of “a slice of Emmental, please.” Don’t do this — Philadelphians will laugh at you.
The sandwich, like a grinder or like a muffaletta, is best eaten in Working-Man’s Stance: with feet spread apart and leaning slightly forward, so that all spillage may fall directly onto the street, or at worst your shoes.
3. BEEF ON WECK
Western New York state is a hotbed of culinary delights: white hots and garbage plates in Rochester, spiedies in Binghamton, and in Buffalo the eponymous wings, butter lambs, and Beef on Weck (pronounced Week).
Your basic beef on weck uses rare thin-carved steak or beef, horseradish, a side of beef jus into which to dip the sandwich, and a kummelweck roll, from which the name is derived, whose crust is topped with caraway seeds and kosher salt.
An especially thirst-inducing sandwich, the beef on weck is accordingly very popular in local taverns.
4. ITALIAN BEEF
The love of roast beef spans the nation. Continuing west we reach Chicago, home of Italian Beef. An Italian Beef requires a length of Italian garlic bread and some thinly sliced spicy roast beef soaked in its own juices, and peppers: either hot peppers (giardiniera), or sweet Italian green peppers. Be it wet, juicy, or soaked, the sandwich is always tasty, but for mysterious reasons has not spread as far outside Chicago as the cheesesteak has, outside Philadelphia, or the French Dip, outside California.
There are hundreds of places in Chicago to get an Italian Beef, and each Chicagoan will have his or her favorite. Near many of these places will be others, offering Chicago-style hot dogs; a subject we will cover, in the future.
5. THE FRENCH DIP
As the Pacific hoves into view, so do the number of restaurant signs offering French Dipped Sandwiches. The French Dip is again, a length of bread filled with sliced roast beef, along with a bowl of jus, into which the entire sandwich, if desired, may be dipped.
Phillipe’s and Cole’s, both in Los Angeles, are the pioneer purveyors of this classic treat, but there is nothing better than to stop at Nepenthe (the restaurant on the Pacific Coast Highway near Big Sur), grab an outdoor table overlooking the ocean, ordering your french dip and having it arrive just as the fog rolls in, blocking the entirety of the view.
But, allowing you to focus more closely on your tasty roast beef sandwich.