Massachusetts may not be the epicenter of BBQ but if you head up the coast north of Boston on the North Shore, you’ll begin noticing roast beef shops at seemingly every turn. Signs typically advertise that they’re “famous”. And that may just be true because most of these shops are local institutions that have steadily grown across the generations.
Legend has it that these sandwiches originated in 1951 when local chef, Frank ”Mac” McCarthy, opened Kelly’s, a summer sandwich shack on the beach. Although Kelly’s sold the first hot beef sandwich as this region knows it, other entrepreneurs set up shop offering their own versions. Some things stayed the same like quick counter service and typical servings on disposable plates with stacks of paper napkins at the ready.
The classic style is piled high with fresh, thin-sliced beef on a butter-grilled bun, and slathered with mayo and sweet,
tangy “BBQ” sauce. When ordering, you might hear somebody call out that they want it “three way” (sauce, mayo, American cheese). Toppings served at your option include onion, horseradish, and mustard.
Visit a few of these North Shore roast beef shops and you’ll notice that many are Greek-owned. This is the result of a huge influx of Greek immigrants who came to Lowell at the turn of the 20th century to work in mills. Some began transitioning to the food business and particularly in the 1960s, new arrivals landed jobs in North Shore diners, casual restaurants, and sandwich shops owned by more established Greek immigrants.
So the longstanding popularity of these sandwiches is the direct result of generations of mom-and-pop shops passing on jobs and training to family and friends which in part explains why they have been able to cultivate a sizable enough fan base to compete with other regional stalwarts like clam chowder and baked beans.
Of course the North Shore isn’t the only region laying claim to a beef sandwich heritage. Similar offerings across the U.S. are pit beef in Baltimore, grilled steak and melted cheese comprise the Philly cheese steak, while up in Buffalo, beef on weck is thin sliced beef served with grated horseradish on kummelweck, a hard roll studded with caraway seeds. Chicago’s Italian beef is extra thin roast beef sopped in gravy, topped with hot pickled veggies and stuffed into Italian bread. Am I missing any others?
photos courtesy of Steve Mirsky