Massachusetts may not be the epicenter of BBQ but if you head up above Boston to the North Shore, you’ll soon begin noticing roast beef shops at practically every turn. Their signs typically include the word “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, others set up shop offering their own versions. Some things stayed the same like quick counter service on disposable plates with stacks of paper napkins at the ready.
The classic style sandwich 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.
A huge influx of Greek immigrants fanned out from Lowell MA at the turn of the 20th century to work in mills. Visit a few of these North Shore roast beef shops and you’ll notice that many are to this day Greek-owned.
The longstanding popularity of these roast beef sandwiches is thanks to multi-generation mom-and-pop shops cultivating a fiercely loyal fan base competing with other regional favorites 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, the heavenly marriage of grilled steak and melted cheese in the Philly Cheese Steak, while up in Buffalo, Beef on Weck, thin sliced beef slathered with grated horseradish is served 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. I’m sure there are others out there that I’m missing….
photos courtesy of Steve Mirsky