Some foods are ubiquitous to areas. Philadelphia has its cheesesteaks. The south has its BBQ. New York has its cheesecake. Boston has its baked beans. But for every well-known regional food, there are dozens of lesser known ones that are just as wonderful — if not more so.
When it comes to greater Boston, one of those foods is the Roast Beef Sandwich. An area favorite, particularly north of Boston, it’s popularity extends across the New Hampshire line and down into Rhode Island too.
Let me introduce you to this glorious sandwich … The Roast Beef Sandwich is typically served on an onion roll, which is a soft sandwich roll that’s dotted with sweet bits of caramelized onions. My husband opts for a regular sesame roll, but you have to ask for that (and unless you are a total onion hater like him, I don’t suggest you do so). Onto that roll goes an eye-popping quantity of thinly sliced roast beef deli meat, which has been warmed on the grill. It’s doused with a spicy, loose barbecue sauce and served hot. The contrast between the sweet onions and the bite of the sauce is amazing.
Excuse me while I wipe the drool from my lips … this is an amazing sandwich.
Since this is one of those foods, of course there are many places to grab a Roast Beef Sandwich in the greater Boston area. But only one hold’s the distinction of being the originator. That’s Kelly’s Roast Beef, which opened in 1951. Kelly’s started as a walk-up beach eatery at Revere Beach. That location is still in operation today.
I was introduced to this phenomenon by my husband years ago, and I have to admit that when I heard about these hot, beefy sandwiches, I pictured layers of thick, dry roast beef sogged with gravy. That image obviously couldn’t be further from the truth.
Shawn’s sandwich of choice is from Blue House in Salem, NH (no, not a typo — there really is a Salem in New Hampshire … and it’s not the same as Salem, Mass.). This pizza joint-slash-roast beef house creates unbelievably thick sandwiches and a hearty amount of sauce. I have it on good authority that they use the Ken’s Steak House brand barbecue, which is sadly only available wholesale. Drats.
I’ve also tried Royal House of Roast Beef, which is located in Metheun, Mass., just off of Interstate 93. It’s in a strip mall with a Dunkin Donuts and a liquor store. The cash-only operation has sandwiches that aren’t quite as hefty as Blue House (though they are still pretty big). Ask for extra sauce, as I felt like they were a little light on it. But they still make a good bite.
So, could you make this at home? Probably. But the barbecue sauce is really important to the dish. It has to have the consistency of tomato soup and a definitive bite. I’m not sure of any that fit that bill exactly, besides Ken’s. The roast beef needs to be heated, but not cooked (you don’t want it to get dry!). And the onion roll is probably easy to locate. Really, it’s a matter of finding the right sauce.
What lesser-known local favorites are popular in your area? Share in the comments below!
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Sarah Walker Caron is a cookbook author, freelance writer and founder of Sarah’s Cucina Bella. Her latest cookbook is The Super Easy 5-Ingredient Cookbook, published by Rockridge Press, which focuses on quick, easy, from-scratch cooking for busy people. A single mother to two kids in middle school, Sarah loves nightly family dinners, juicy tomatoes plucked fresh from the vine and lazy days on the beach. She also adores reading and traveling.