roast beef
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Food & Drink

Is the North Shore Roast Beef Sandwich the Ultimate All-American Treat?

We were heading to Swampscott, which is technically on the Massachusetts North Shore. A coastal town with ashes of blue-collar stock, and sweeping views of Nahant Bay. That's when my husband said the thing that baffled me. "What is up with all this roast beef?" he asked. 

Here's what you can't get in the Midwest or Northwest Pacific: a proper New England roast beef. Actually, it had never before occurred to me that sandwiches -- served in Yankee-land, with thin-sliced, rare beef, a "special sauce" of a mayonnaise origin not unlike a Thousand Island dressing, barbecue sauce, and either American or provolone cheese (favored for their ability to melt; additional condiments, like tomatoes, lettuce, and sliced raw onion, are optional) -- were regional. Didn't everyone eat them?
 
Everyone did not.

The sandwich is a Northern Massachusetts cultural touchstone as identifiable as a hamburger, like fried clams, and black raspberry ice cream.

What my husband found riveting -- and what had escaped my accustomed, native eye -- was the sheer abundance of roast beef establishments, peppered throughout the boulevards. Swampscott is a suburban community, once down on its luck and now enjoying a revival. Still, whiffs of old charm remain, like those roast beef restaurants. Red meat between bread is everywhere in the Bay State. The sandwich is a Northern Massachusetts cultural touchstone as identifiable as a hamburger, like fried clams, and black raspberry ice cream. It's a treat we grew up with, and one that, until recently, I hadn't stopped to consider was unique to a particular area.
 
I'm from Newburyport, an adorable sea-faring town exactly 48 miles north of Boston. Were it not for the nearby Merrimack River, Newburyport could just as easily pass for Galena, Illinois, or Deadwood, South Dakota. Red-brick façades and colonial details give it an Anywhere, USA appeal. In my hometown, there was the Big Gun roast beef (the one everyone knew about and heralded) and the Small Guy (the local go-to establishment for a hot sandwich). 

The Big Gun was -- and still is -- Revere Beach's Kelly's Roast Beef, which opened in 1951 and has now expanded to include three additional locations, in Saugus, Medford, and Danvers, Massachusetts. Does the name "Revere" sound familiar? The town was originally founded as North Chelsea in 1846 and renamed in 1871 after the Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere." Revere Beach is not a colonial, picturesque place, and it's good that they have roast beef because there's not much else to draw you there unless you're particularly captivated by dropped consonants. But Kelly's Roast Beef? That's a definite draw. 

In my hometown, there was the Big Gun roast beef (the one everyone knew about and heralded) and the Small Guy (the local go-to establishment for a hot sandwich).

Built on an unassuming street corner by the beach, the original restaurant is recognizable both for its takeout window and for its large, iconic sign in green neon featuring an apron-bedecked, toque-wearing chef holding a towering sando. Inside, a casual menu board (you order at the register) advertises Kelly's most famous items -- roast beef, naturally -- but also their seafood platters. Order a small roast beef on a grilled sesame seed bun, and, if you're feeling decadent, spring for a side of breaded onion rings.

Why is this sandwich so good? It possesses all of the necessary elements of a culinary masterpiece: texture, ample condiments, fat, and crunch. There is the height from the meat itself, but not too much stature. Does anyone want to use a fork to stab at their lunch's remains? The special sauce offers a slick of creamy richness, tempered by sweetness and acid from the barbecue sauce. One square of cheese is enough for a little creaminess. Onions are required, for bite and flavor. It is different, say, from a New York pastrami on rye, where the protein can tend toward the perilously dry, and the bread, on the stiffer side, doesn't give an inch when you hinge your jaw. A New England roast beef is soft, but not soggy. It yields. And a worthwhile gem should yield. 

In my town, Courtyard Roast Beef was our Small Guy, the carnivore's delight piled high on an onion roll. This past year, it closed, after 36 years in business, leaving us beef-less, which is a sad post-script; no town should lose their mainstay. The Courtyard super beef was legendary. I dare you to find a sandwich with a better name. Super. Beef. Can someone resurrect this hallowed legend? Right now, space where Courtyard used to be -- a nondescript building with gray siding near both a traffic circle and the District Court -- is nothing more than an abandoned building. An Italian restaurant is slated to move in next, and it will likely be nicer than Courtyard was, with no built-in Formica booths, no yellow pallor accumulated from decades of grease traps. 

A New England roast beef is soft, but not soggy. It yields. And a worthwhile gem should yield.

Courtyard has closed, but all is not lost. The next time you're up north, after you've finished with your buttery lobster rolls, seek out the alternative to the BLT. Pay Kelly's a visit, of course. Poor Courtyard, may she rest in peace, will no longer be on the docket. In Ipswich, not 10 minutes from where Courtyard once stood, Zeno's Roast Beef makes a compelling creation, with its squishy outside and fork-tender meat, but many will argue that Beverly's Nick's Roast Beef, is superior (I say: You be the judge). Nick's is known mainly for its towering Super Beef, a multi-napkin affair involving high-stacked, hot pink meat, with sauce and juice exploding from the confines of its allium-derived bun like tasty lava. 

If you are wondering, in earnest, how important roast beef is to the Northern Massachusetts food landscape, allow me to remind you of a seminal movie, 1997's Good Will Hunting. "I'm not going to Kelly's just because you like the takeout girl," Ben Affleck's character, Chuckie, says to Casey Affleck's Morgan. "It's 15 minutes out of our way." At first, this may feel like a throwaway line, but this is deliberate. Kelly's -- and roast beef sandwiches -- are just as Massachusetts as a line that has followed Bay Staters around since Damon and Affleck's movie premiered over 20 years ago. The inclusion was the point -- these sandwiches matter. 

How do you like them apples? 

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Hannah Selinger is a contributor to Thrillist.