Beef Sandwiches of America, Curated
Let's be honest: sliced beef is more desirable than ground beef. And easier to eat than a slab of beef.
What you are about to see, is real. All these sandwiches are made of massive handfuls of thinly sliced beef that has been cooked in a roasted manner. All are served on similar looking rolls. Because you can only see them and not smell them, hold them, guide them to your moist, waiting lips, you really can't judge. You may think they all taste the same, which negates the theory behind this article. Reader, I have had them all. Many, many, many times; furiously; voraciously. I promise you a sensuous experience.
The Philadelphia Cheesesteak
Max's Cheesesteaks, Philadelphia
I'ma start with the Philly Cheesesteak. Out of these offerings, it is the best known throughout the continent. I've seen Philly Cheesesteak stands in Banff, Alberta. I also feel that it provides the most American eating experience, that of pure excess and overwhelming flavors.
Its origins are simple: one day, a hot dog vendor named Pat slapped some ribeye on his grill for himself. A cabbie smelled it and wanted some. So Pat stuck some in a crusty french roll and it blew up from there. These days, thinly sliced ribeye steak is quickly cooked on a hot flattop griddle. Sounds lovely so far.
Ordering a cheesesteak is also a simple task, only two words are required and in fact acceptable. I'll start at the end. The second word is either 'wit' or 'widout'. This specifies whether you want onions or not. 'Wit' means 'with', etc. It's the first word that truly turns this sandwich into an American spectacle.
The first word specifies the type of cheese you want on your sandwich. You can choose American or Provolone, but most choose 'Whiz'. That's right, the Kraft processed 'cheese' sauce, one of the most unnatural food stuffs sold commercially today. The American bastardized version of Welsh Rarebit, Whiz gives the Philly Cheesesteak the overpowering tang as well as the sticky clingy adhesive quality that binds the meal together.
The Deli Pastrami on Rye
Katz's Delicatessen, New York
Pastrami is beef, so it qualifies! It is brined, like corned beef, but it is then covered with a spice rub and then smoked, while corned beef is boiled. A staple of Kosher delis, the New York style pastrami on rye, piled high to the point of ridiculousness have fed Big Apple denizens for decades.
Damn if I don't love me a pastrami tower, piled high, fatty, crusted with spicy peppery char, adorned with nothing but a schmear of brown mustard and a pickle spear. Rye bread is not my favorite, as you will soon find out, but New York deli rye breads are milder, and the slight bitter note of the caraway seed helps break up the pickling curing spice in the beef so my brain can process the flavor.
Beef on Weck
Schwabl's, Buffalo, NY
Buffalo is an old manufacturing and shipping town on Lake Erie, near the Niagra Falls site. It of course is the origin of Buffalo Wings, the go-to bar food. It is also lesser known for its (very) rare roast beef sandwich piled high onto a special Weck bun. Schwabl's bar in Buffalo claims to be the true originator of the Weck bun, based on a German type of bread called kummelweck, encrusted in kosher salt and caraway seeds.
It is thought that kummelweck was a special bread, only made to honor the dead. I admit that's close to how I feel about beef on Weck. The beef is roasted with very little spice; I can't stand rare beef; and there isn't enough else going on to distract me from the caraway seeds, unlike the gigantic pastrami-on-rye. I think Beef on Weck is ass. Sorry, Buffalo. I still love your wings.
The Italian Beef
Al's Beef, Chicago
Dis is wot ahm most famiyuh wid. Da Chicaguh Beef Sammich wid jarrdinair. (consult your Chicago-to-English translator) An Italian-American deli owner tried to make like Jesus one day and feed a crowd of people with a small piece of roast beef by slicing it razor thin before serving. It worked, and he was asked to do it again and again until an industry was formed. Now Italian Beefs are served at every corner hot dog stand in the city and environs.
A beef roast is seasoned with garlic, oregano, thyme and pepper. After roasting, it is briefly chilled then sliced as thinly as possible. Then it is dunked back into its cooking juices to finish absorbing flavors before it is piled into an French bread roll. It resembles a Philly cheesesteak at this point, except that cheese is quite optional. Instead it is traditionally topped with guardineria, a relish made of pickled peppers, celery, & olives.
The example you see above is known as 'dry' because it has not yet been 'blessed' with the gravy. 'Wet' means gravy has been ladled over the top. 'Dipped' means the entire sandwich has been dunked into the gravy before serving. Dipped is the only way to go.
The New Orleans Beef Po-boy
In New Orleans, everything is spicy. This also applies to the 'po-boy', which since it is served on a French bread roll resembles a few of the other sandwiches. The differences start with the roll itself. A New Orleans style roll is more tender inside than what they use in Chicago or Philly. It is also 'dressed' in lettuce, tomato, pickles and God help us, mayonnaise. Po boys are not strictly made with beef. They also make them with all sorts of fried seafood such as shrimp, crab, oysters, catfish and crayfish which are all locally sourced where the Mississippi River delta meets the Gulf of Mexico. I have found that you can get a 'seafood po-boy' at any of the myriad of Cajun food chains that exist throughout the States. But you have to go down to the Bayou for a proper beef.
New Orleans cuisine has African, French Acadian, and Carribean influences, which speaks to the po boy beef. It is simmered in beef stock flavored with garlic, local hot peppers such as tabasco, thyme and bay leaf. It is cooked down until it literally breaks apart into what locals call the 'debris', quite possibly my favorite term in all of cooking. The result is a juicy, messy flavor detonation that, honestly, I am leery about ever tackling again. But it sure was fun!
The French Dip
Phillipe The Original, Los Angeles
Capping it off on the West Coast is the birthplace of the French Dip sandwich, Los Angeles. I was personally shocked when I first learned this, but I digress. A French-American deli owner named Phillipe was once making a roast beef sandwich for a policeman when he accidentally dropped the roll in the drippings of the roasting pan. I imagine Phillipe offered to make him another one when the cop said 'hey, let me see that?' He ate it, loved it, told his cop buddies, and a sandwich was born!
The recipe is pretty simple: a roast beef is cooked, sliced, and piled into a French roll. The drippings are saved and served alongside the sandwich as 'au jus', which is French for 'the juice'? Perhaps? At least that's what I always believed. Typically the au jus has been strained so very few bits of meat remain, although that's not always the case. French Dip sandwiches are typically on the menu at most American diners and cafes, so this is actually the variety of beef sandwich most Americans are familar with.
I personally would put my beloved Italian beef sandwich first, followed by the big pastrami-on-rye, the NOLA Po Boy, the French Dip, the Philly Cheesesteak and last but least, the beef on Weck.
Each beef sandwich has its own flavor. State your preference in the comments!