The North Shore Roast Beef Sandwich: a Scientific Study

Illustration: Chelsea Damraksa

Illustration: Chelsea Damraksa

Words and Photos by Kelsey Tenney

“Food with a sense of place.”

The very phrase conjures up pretty images of local farms, wild foraged plants, farm-to-fork restaurants and farmer’s markets across city landscapes—all things celebrated by this magazine on a regular (and near exclusive) basis.

But there is another category of food, also very much defined by its origins: Every region of this country has its particular local delicacies, and many don't contain a single ingredient grown or raised in the community, but they are still central to the culinary makeup of the area. In fact, Boston is famous as much for its native clam chowder and boiled lobster as it is to Fluffernutters and Fenway franks. And while here at Edible it is always important to us to highlight local farmers, fishermen and the food grown and raised here, our region’s gastronomic identity depends on both categories of this “local food.”

To the North Shore of Boston, the roast beef sandwich is the best example of a truly local specialty. Roast beef isn’t popular there because there’s a big North Shore cattle industry; sure, there are a few meat farms in Essex County, but this sandwich’s ingredients are always sourced from national distribution services such as Sysco and US Foods. In fact, the modern roast beef sandwich is thought to have been born in Revere at Kelly’s in 1951—on a whim—after a whole roast beef, leftover from a cancelled wedding, was sliced thin and served up plain on bread at their hot dog stand. It was a hit. And since that fateful day, myriad variations have popped up, adding cheese, sauce, mayo, pickles and more to the mix, each sandwich “combo” lending completely different flavors and textures to the plain beef and bread.

Creamy, tangy, spicy, crunchy: Everyone on the North Shore has a strong opinion about which toppings to choose and which beef shop is best. The beef rivalry between towns like Salem, Peabody and Lynn is very real, and diners should be prepared to discuss the beef-to-bun (B2B) ratio if they’re going to engage in it. They’re really serious about their sandwiches up there.

A food scientist by trade, I recently spent a few weeks mapping sensory points around the anatomy of toppings and condiments on a North Shore beef sandwich and how they affect the overall experience, a vital exercise for both the beef novice and experienced local. Insert tongue in cheek now. We’re about to get scientific about a sandwich.

One caveat and warning: I’m a novice when it comes to roast beef. I’m from Minnesota, and my first beef sandwich came from an Arby’s counter at the mall. It was obviously… subpar. However, since moving to the Boston area, I’ve approached the local beef sandwich with fresh eyes and no bias. I tried all the toppings and in all the ways in an attempt to find the best possible combination—here are my notes from this very “scientific” approach to this local delicacy.

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First things first, the basics

The beef. Either top or bottom round, the beef is cooked very rare and thinly sliced for each sandwich. Kelly’s, with a nod to their founding tradition, uses top round and often hand slices the beef, while most other shops use the bottom round and slice the meat with deli slicers creating a thinner, more consistent cut.

The size. Junior beefs are what most consider a “snack sandwich.” Larger than a slider and more like a McDonald’s hamburger bun in circumference, the Junior is the smallest. The Regular is the medium-size beef option, about the size of most half-pound burger buns. The Super Beef is the biggest and generally served on an onion roll. This bun is slightly bigger than the regular—approaching 6 inches in diameter.

The bread. The rolls/buns on a beef sandwich must be soft and slightly squishy. They’re a little sweet, but not quite as sweet as a Hawaiian Roll. I prefer the onion roll, myself, which adds a little extra flavor punch. The super beef can also be ordered on a sub roll as an alternative to the round bun, and the biggest difference there is flavor: The sub roll lends a yeastier, more savory/salty note to the sandwich. Perhaps the only local component in a typical North Shore beef sandwich is the bun, almost always made by Piantedosi Baking Co. in Malden, which toasts the top nicely for a slightly crusty texture and sometimes sesame seeds. One beef fan calls the bread “the unsung hero” of a beef sandwich.

A plain beef sandwich is made from just these two components: beef and bread. Some add a sprinkle of salt. While not the top choice, beef shops tell me that this sandwich has some fans and cannot go unmentioned.

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Optional toppings and combination matrix

There are countless ways to get a beef sandwich with various toppings—one friend laughingly refers to this as “the beef way.” As in, which way do you take your beef?

The main players are:

The sauce. James River Barbecue Sauce. It’s tangy, it’s slightly sweet and it’s the cult secret (that’s not so secret) of the sandwich. The sauce enhances the flavor of the beef while the texture also coats the overall sandwich to prevent it being too dry.

The cheese. Generally white American, generally on the bottom of the beef to prevent it from sliding off. It lends a subtle tang, with savory and creamy notes that only cheese can provide. You notice when it’s not there more than anything.

The mayo. Cain’s Extra Heavy Mayonnaise is the most commonly used. The mayo gives a rich mouthfeel and makes for an overall more luxurious sandwich.

The combination of these three components is called the “three-way.” Perhaps the most indicative of how ubiquitous the beef sandwich is to the North Shore, if you want your sandwich like this you need only approach the counter and ask for “a three-way.”

While the three-way holds a special place in most hearts, there are endless customizable ways to order this sandwich that are worth exploring. The below table details the flavor matrix* of the North Shore Roast beef sandwich.

The matrix.

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While the range of options are plenty, the one-of-a-kind beef sandwich is a large part of the fabric of New England food identity and the pride of the North Shore. Whether you get yours with iceberg lettuce, as a Junior or plain with salt, biting into a roast beef sandwich sews you right into that fabric. Just don’t forget the napkins.