Best Roast Beef Sandwich Boston and North
Regions of the country are known for certain foods. Philadelphia has its cheesesteaks, New York has its cheesecake, Boston has its clam chowder and Maine has its Lobster. But in addition to those well-known items of regional foods, there are many other lesser ones. When it comes to Boston, particularly the North Shore you have the Roast Beef Sandwich. Its popularity extends up to New Hampshire and across to Rhode Island as well. This is not just any sandwich piles high with roast beef between any 2 pieces of bread. Oh no, this is a culinary delight and locals are fiercely loyal to their favorite roast beef place.
History of the Sandwich
Kelly’s, Revere Beach (5 locations throughout Northshore)
The history of this sandwich goes back to 1951 and the founders of Kelly’s roast Beef. Ray Carey and Frank McCarthy first
worked together at the Paul Roger House. They then went into business together, opening a hot dog stand next door but still working at the restaurant, where Carey was a manager and McCarthy the chef. One night, a wedding booked for the Paul Roger House cancelled, leaving the duo with several roast beefs. So the beef didn’t go to waste, they ended up taking the roast beef over to the hot dog stand, and there began the Roast Beef Sandwich. They changed the stand into Kelly’s Roast Beef in 1951. Arby’s has publicly cited Kelly’s Roast Beef as an inspiration in their book.
Elements of the Perfect Roast Beef Sandwich (We choose to review Super Beefs)
How does one choose between this infinite field of competitors? We visited a few dozen roast beef shops, some old school joints and some brand shiny new spots. It became apparent that there was definitely a recipe, so to speak, for the perfect Roast Beef Sandwich.
Meat: moist, rosy (rare to medium rare), tender, and sliced thin. It should be slightly warm. The beef is a top round, cooked slow. If the beef is cooked too fast or at too hot a temperature, instead of getting a nice rosy pink throughout, you end up with the meat gray on the outside and the pink only in the middle. The gray meat tends to be dry.
Bun: Soft eggy onion roll, griddled, and dotted with sweet bits of caramelized onion. This is the roll of choice for the Super Beef, which is really the way to enjoy this glorious sandwich. There are 2 distinct brands of onion rolls. The preferable one is a brighter yellow with soft onions. The other roll is baked longer, with fewer onions and the roll and onions are quite dark in color. This one is more airy and doesn’t stand up to the sauce as well.
Toppings: the traditional toppings include “the three-way” of mayonnaise, American cheese, and barbecue sauce. The sauce must be James River Barbecue Sauce made right here in Salem, MA. It is a zesty, southern style barbecue sauce that remains unchanged since the 1950’s.
All three of these components are equally important and any one of them can throw the sandwich off the path of perfection to the road to hell. While we looked at a few dozen of what is considered to be the top roast beef spots (either by previous polls or your recommendations), I am sure that we did miss some gems. There are hundreds of places that sell these sandwiches and we can’t do them all.
We held to our criteria for what makes a great roast beef sandwich when evaluating the different places. We had sandwich after sandwich with stale bread, the wrong roll, overcooked beef, or the ratio of sauce to beef off. Understanding that we could have hit a place when the fresh bread delivery hadn’t come yet, or they used yesterday’s beef, or they just had a bad day. Despite that, we had to evaluate the sandwiches given to us.
Try any of the ones below, and you shouldn’t be disappointed. The prices ranged from a very reasonable 6.80 to a crazy high of 11.00. Fortunately, all of our recommendations came in on the cheaper end of that scale.
Although located in a new strip mall in Melrose, it has been around since 1976. If Liberty Bell was a dance studio at a competition, it would receive a high platinum award. It is that good. In fact, it is life changing good. I have been eating roast beef sandwiches for almost 40 years and I thought I knew what was good until I had a super beef from Liberty Bell.
Everything about this sandwich was perfect. The onion roll was fresh, soft and perfectly griddled and the rare beef was tender, moist, warm and sliced perfectly thin. It had cheese on the top and bottom bun and the mayo/sauce combo was in the right proportions. Furthermore, The meat went to the edge of the bun and didn’t sit piled high in the middle. The cost was a reasonable $7.80. Furthermore, service was fast and friendly and the shop itself was clean and bright. Another plus is the restroom facilities so you can do proper wash-up. Open every day 10am to 10pm, closed on Sundays. 886 Main St, Melrose MA www.libertybellmelrose.com
Prime Roast Beef opened only 7 years ago and is on Route 114 in a shiny new strip mall. It is a bright and cheery space and the friendly staff greet you as soon as you walk in. Prime is a bit unique from some of its competition. They sell wood-fired pizza, sandwiches, dinners, salads/wraps and specialize in vegetarian, skinny and gluten free items. It is rather like ordering lunch at Whole Foods. Prime makes its own salad dressings, sauces, and roasted and marinated meats. They use organic ingredients when possible and use prime beef for the roast beef sandwiches.
So at this point, we didn’t have high expectations for an authentic North Shore roast beef sandwich. We waited only a few minutes for our super beef ($8.29). The beef was rare, tasty, warm and tender. The roll was griddled perfectly so the roll is nice and hot, it had the proper meat to bun ratio, and had the proper amount of sauce and mayo. All in all a perfect roast beef sandwich. Located at 85 Andover St, Danvers MA www.primeroastbeef.com
Fresco’s is in a new strip mall plaza that is bright and cheery inside with staff that is refreshingly friendly. The place just has a positive vibe about it. In addition to the great atmosphere, Fresco’s also offers an impressive super roast beef ($7.80). The yellowy onion roll is fresh, perfectly griddled with lots of caramelized onions dotting the top and the beef was moist, tender and sliced nice and thin. A Slice of American cheese on the bottom bun piled high with the delicious beef. Mayo and sauce, a good amount without drowning out the delicate flavor of the meat complete this primo sandwich. 775 Eastern Ave, Malden www.frescosmalden.com
King’s is of the old-school variety type of shop. It is a small place with only a few tables. This is the place of your childhood. We ordered our super beef ($7.10) and while we were waiting, we enjoyed the conversation between the regular customers and the owner/employees. The sandwich was very good. Nice soft roll, griddled perfectly, beef was a combo of rare to medium and moist, the ratio of meat to bun was good and the condiments were in the right proportions. This is a solid roast beef sandwich that I would definitely have again. 145 North Street, Salem MA www.kingsroastbeef.com
Alamo is in an unassuming location on Salem St in Medford. Looking at it from the outside, our hopes were rather low and stepping inside did not help. It is a bit of a dive however, the employees were friendly. While we waited, we noted Modern Pastry directly across the street which was filed away for later. The super beef ($7.50) came out quickly and felt nice and hot. That was a good sign. The beef was nice and pink with very little gray. In addition, Condiments were appropriate. All in all, this was a solid sandwich. Sometimes you have to look past the aesthetics of the place, especially when you are looking for a cheap bite. Located at 21 Salem St, Medford www.alamoroastbeefpizzaseafood.com
Niki’s was the best of the local bunch (Merrimack Valley). Located on busy Sutton Street, it is easy to get to. It is clean and cheery when you walk inside. Friendly staff greeted us as we walked in. The super beef at $6.75 is the cheapest that we saw. The roll was griddled nicely, the beef was moist and med-rare to medium and the meat to bun ratio was good while the condiments complimented the meat. Niki’s is located at 208 Sutton St, North Andover www.nikisfamous.com