In Search of North Shore Beef
Massachusetts Isn't Just About Chowder, Fried Clams and Lobster Rolls.
This is the latest edition of “In Search of… “
…a periodic feature on The Mix in which we go in search of the origins of certain regional foods, sampling several examples of such—and traveling hundreds of miles—along the way. Previously, we have gone in search of Hot Pie, City Chicken and Tavern-Style Pizza. This time, we headed north to Boston.
As a rule, regional food preferences have old roots. If there’s a particular dish that is eaten in a certain part of the country, chances are locals have been eating that dish for decades if not centuries. At some point in the distant past, a taste for that food took hold with the population and it never loosened its grip.
In our increasingly global society, with its homogenous tastes, new regional food traditions are exceedingly rare.
There are exceptions, however. Last year, when I was doing research for an article on Brooklyn roast beef sandwiches for The Mix, I began noticing a cluster of recent articles and online posts about something called North Shore Beef. This was a type of roast beef sandwich that was distinguished by, it seemed, the inclusion of cheese, mayonnaise and an ungodly amount of barbecue sauce. This trio of critical ingredients is known as a “3-way” in North Shore Beef jargon. And the sandwich is eaten only in a collection of towns north of Boston. (The North Shore is the term used for the coastline counties between Boston and New Hampshire, though it is often applied to other more-inland Massachusetts counties which are nowhere near the shore.)
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Eventually, my casual online research led me to an Instagram page called North Shore Beefs run by a guy named Andy Ferg. The passion that Ferg, who grew up in Peabody, has for this sandwich was communicated in every post. It could also be found in the Facebook page he founded in 2019, which has 33,000 members.
Now, for someone uninitiated in the ways of this sandwich, the first sight of one can be downright disturbing. It does look, as Ferg has put it, like a “murder scene.” Its centerpiece is a mountain of thinly-sliced, rare roast beef anywhere from two to four inches high. It sits between two buns that hardly look like they are up to the task of containing the meat. All the beef is covered in rust-red barbecue sauce that drips down all sides of the sandwich and onto the plate. Intermingled with the red are disconcerting trickles of white coming from the mayonnaise that has been slathered on the underside of the top bun. Beneath the beef is a slice of melted American cheese. If violence was a sandwich, it would look like a North Shore Beef.
Still, I got over my initial squeamishness and became determined to try this northern Massachusetts specialty. I ended up tasting more than one version. During a recent weekend in April, Mary Kate and I visited no fewer than seven roast beef joints in six different towns along the North Shore.
One of those places was Kelly’s, which can be regarded as the McDonald’s of North Shore Beef, with four locations in Massachusetts as well as branches in New Hampshire and Florida. Kelly’s also claims to be the originator of the North Shore Beef sandwich. The story they tell on their website involves a cancelled wedding in 1951 that left them with a lot of leftover roast beef. They turned lemons into lemonade by selling as sandwiches at their hot dog stand, and sold out in an hour.
Another old name in the roast-beef biz is Bill & Bob’s Famous Roast Beef. They started in Salem and now have three locations. Nondas Lagonakis, a Greek immigrant who bought Bill & Bob’s in 1968, has been credited with making the thin, tangy James River the accepted barbecue sauce for all North Shore Beefs. It’s an unusual achievement, given that the sauce is manufactured in Virginia.
One thing that seems clear to me is there is today a divide between the old-school standard-bearers in the North Shore Beef world, and the young guns that have come along in recent years. Kelly’s and Bill & Bob’s do things the old way and produce a fairly predictable roast beef sandwich. With the newer purveyors, it’s all about more beef, rarer beef, more sauce, shock and awe.
There is increased visibility in the media, too. Nearly all the articles I found about North Shore Beefs had been written in the last year or so. “I definitely think the popularity has grown,” said Ferg. “It was already a very popular sandwich but having a platform to talk about them and celebrate them has increased interest for sure.”
I asked Ferg for recommendations and he pointed to Zeno’s in Ipswich as the best traditional spot, so we began our tour there. Zeno’s has been around eight years. It’s a simple shop; none of the North Shore Beef joints are fancy affairs, in fact. The first thing I learned was that, at nearly every place, NSBs come in three sizes: Junior, Large and Super. The amount of beef you get grows with each size. Also, the roll changes.
“There are three widely accepted rolls,” Ferg explained to me. “The junior beef bun is your basic hamburger bun. The regular or large bun is generally a seeded roll and the super bun is an onion roll. They should always be griddled.”
We decided to use a Large 3-Way as our control group sandwich and ordered that at every place we visited.
The first challenge for a North Shore Beef innocent like myself it: How the hell do you eat it? Though the Zeno’s sandwich was modest in size in comparison to others I would encounter, there’s seemed no clear way to pick it up that wouldn’t result in a messy disaster. With the first bite, half the beef slithered out of the bun and onto the plate. I would get used to this beefslide over time. The first two bites of every sandwich were a wrestling match to gain control over the untamable thing. After that, you could smoosh the sandwich down flat with your hands and attain manageable bites.
Though the struggle was real, it was worth it. My first North Shore Beef experience was a good one. The meat, which was medium rare, was cut to order; sandwiches are made on the spot the moment they are ordered at all good beef joints. The mix of tender beef, melty cheese, creamy mayonnaise and tangy sauce mad for a decadent, umami-intense experience. And, to my surprise, the firmly griddled bun held up against the weight of the filling.
A word about the jargon used by North Shore Beef devotees when describing their beloved sandwich. It is a bit, shall we say, saucy. As I’ve said, the standard set-up of cheese, mayonnaise and barbecue sauce is called a 3-Way. That’s no different from how one common version of Cincinnati Chili is termed. But somehow, on the North Shore, the desciptor comes with a bit more of a wink.
Ferg himself came up with a more recent coinage to describe a 3-Way in which onion rings and horseradish are added to the sandwich. This is a “gangbang.” “That is a phrase I coined after a group member (Kenny Mac) posted one,” Ferg told me. “It’s innuendo-based, like most things we do on the page.” This is also known as a 5-way. (For me, a 3-way is plenty big enough.)
After Zeno’s, we drove to Bella’s in North Andover. Like many beef places, it occupies a storefront in a small strip mall. Bella’s is an exemplar of the new style. The amount of meat and sauce were decidedly extra. You can get a “double decker” here, which means an extra slice of bread is placed in the middle, like a club sandwich.
By the time we got to Londi’s, also in North Andover, I realized that buns can vary significantly, even within the Large sandwich category. Zeno’s used a simple, flat bun. Bella’s bun was high, golden and seeded. Londi’s had my favorite bun of all, a stiff, chewy seeded one with lots of sesame seeds and a cross pattern on top. It was a strong delivery system for the filling. Moreover, the bread itself was delicious and added to the flavor of the sandwich.
Like Bella’s, Londi’s version did not lack for meat or sauce. At this point, I began to rate sandwiches on whether I could get a clean bite. Bella’s beef, while good, was perhaps too rare. That made it difficult to tear away the meat without taking the rest of the filling with you. Londi’s beef cut cleanly between my teeth. It was also warmer and tangier.
When I asked the workers at Bella’s and Londi’s about sandwich prep details, they didn’t have much to offer. “I don’t know” was the most frequent answer. Maybe they just didn’t want to tell me. Ferg called Bella’s and Londi’s “mad scientists with their secret methods.”
Not on our schedule was Harrison’s, also in North Andover—North Andover is quite the roast beef Mecca. But we drove right past it by accident and felt compelled to stop. We did not get a good sandwich there—the bun was stale, the sauce insufficient and the meat was suspect. But we learned a lot about where North Shore Beefs have been and how far the genre has traveled.
Harrison’s is part of the old guard. It was founded in 1984. From the outside, it looks like an abandoned supper club, with its lonely roadside sign, burgundy awning and patchy parking lot. The interior was spacious and had seen better days. But the open kitchen allowed us to see the sandwich being assembled from start to finish. The moment we ordered, the slicer swung into action, which was kind of thrilling to watch.
The next morning, we headed to Tessi’s Pizzeria and Roast Beef in Tewksbury. (Nearly all roast beef places also feature pizza and quite a few other dishes, though I never saw anyone eating anything other than roast beef sandwiches.) This also wasn’t on the schedule, but Mary Kate pushed me to go and I’m glad she did. It would have been a shame to have missed Tessi’s artistry.
Tessi’s sandwich looked like no other, mainly because of the top bun, which was flat as a manhole, as if the beef were wearing a jaunty straw skimmer. It was a great presentation. (See top photo.) The beef was rare and warm. My only criticism might be that there was too much sauce. It was so tangy, it stung my tastebuds. But otherwise it was perfect and my favorite North Shore Beef.
After Tessi’s, there were two more stops, each representing the opposite side of the high-low NSB spectrum. Jamie’s in Peabody is a “chef-y” beef joint, as Ferg put it. The chef, Matthew Marquis, worked in fine dining before he opened Jamie’s. How serious Jamie’s takes the NSB is communicated by a large blackboard diagram of the sandwich on the wall.
Jamie’s sous vide the beef (or as the cashier put it, “the beef takes a bath”). This made for a slightly less warm sandwich, which meant the cheese wasn’t as melted. There was also less sauce. But you could really taste all the spices the beef had marinated in. The sandwich had a smoky aroma. (Jamie’s also sells a spicy version of the sandwich called the Angry Ferg, which was devised by Ferg himself. It had a real kick. If you like spicy, as I do, you’d dig it.)
Finally, it was off to the Kelly’s branch in Danvers. We didn’t expect much. But we felt we had to try Kelly’s goods for comparison’s sake. The slices of beef were larger and the meat came out medium-rare. The cheese was on top of the meat, not under it—a cardinal sin as far as Beefers are concerned, and I’d have to agree. And there was minimal sauce. The sandwich was big, but it certainly didn’t tower like Tessi’s or Londi’s. As fast food, it was fine, I suppose, even good, but it just seemed sad.
After that, we began our long drive home to Brooklyn, with dreams of salads and roasted vegetables dancing in our heads. One can consume only so much roast beef.
Over the two days, I slowly became a smarter North Shore Beef eater. I walked away from each shop having learned a new lesson or two. Here are my takeaways:
Don’t order sides. They are distractions and unnecessary calories. It’s all about the sandwich, which is flavorful and filling enough.
Real North Shore Beef joints carry Wachusett Potato Chips, a local Massachusetts brand. Of all the shops we visited, only Kelly’s didn't sell them. After two or three joints, I came to count on Wachusetts being available. If you must have a side, made it a small bag of these chips. They are also something to snack on while you wait for your sandwich to be prepared. Sour cream and onion is the best flavor.
Water never tasted so good. North Shore Beefs make you thirsty. And soda, like sides, muddies your taste experience. So go with water. It cleanses your palate and makes you ready for the next bite.
Make the first bite a big one and then proceed to smash the sandwich as flat as you can to make each successive bite more manageable.
Good beef makes a big difference. I know. Duh, right? But it’s important. In the places where the beef was noticeably second-grade, the sandwich was bad.
The last, inside bites of the sandwich were always the best. I’m not sure why. Maybe because all the various flavors were finally coming together in the most concentrated way.
Like many regional foods that seem deceptively simple, the devil is in the details with North Shore Beefs. As Ferg put it, “The main thing for me is results. I want a fat stack of juicy medium rare meat on a nicely griddled bun with cheese sauce and mayo. Every component has to be spot on. It’s a simple sandwich that’s easy to fuck up.”
Odds and Ends…
Rockwell Place in Brooklyn has a new Martini menu, all the drinks made with Isolation Proof Gin made in upstate New York… The documentary Sons of Mezcal will have a screening on July 7 at the Little Theater in Rochester. Director Stephan Werk and Rochester-born editor Danny Doran will be on a hand for a talkback.… The Gem, the delightful oasis of fine cocktails in the Lake George area in upstate New York, opened for business for the season on May 4… I wrote about the history of Boulevardier-like modern cocktails the Left Hand and the Right Hand for Vinepair… The pioneering cocktail bar Angel’s Share will have its latest pop-up when it opens for a single night at Poster House, the first museum in the United States dedicated to the global history of posters, in Chelsea on May 13 from 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM. Tickets are $45… An idiot bill proposed by lawmakers in Wisconsin would let eighth-graders serves drinks in bars in the state… Bates Hatters of Jermyn Street in London has reopened its online store… If you haven’t caught Tom Stoppard’s play Leopoldstadt on Broadway, do so. It is devastatingly good. Performances run at the Longacre Theatre until July 2… Ray’s, the Neo-dive bar on the Lower East Side, now has it’s own brand of hot dogs. They’re called Ray’s Red Hots and they are made by Schaller & Weber. And in other meat-bar related mash-up news, Schaller & Weber makes a salami stick made with Hudson Whiskey.