A friend once told me that, decades ago, what beach-bound Brooklynites craved was not Coney Island franks or Brighton Beach knishes, but hot roast beef sandwiches. After spending years doggedly investigating this phenomenon, I can happily report that many antique establishments still thrive, strategically located on the borough’s ocean approaches. Several are worth seeking out for their own sake any season of the year.
Granddaddy of the roast beef joints is Brennan and Carr. Founded in 1938, when Homecrest was still crisscrossed with country lanes, it’s nostalgically decorated like a Civil War stockade, with a parking lot inside chain-link battlements. The somewhat dainty sandwiches ($4.50) are furnished with an undrained wad of roast beef steamed to grayness, served with a decent cup of bouillon for dipping. Sip it instead, since the kaiser roll is already a soggy mess. Along similar lines, Roll N Roaster boasts a copper mansard roof that shines like a pagan temple on Sheepshead Bay. This 32-year-old sandwich stand has transformed itself into a fast-food emporium with a ridiculously diverse menu, encompassing chicken wings, baked sweet potatoes, clam chowder, corn fritters, “fries with cheez,” fruit drinks, apple pie, and soft-serve ice cream. Though their signature roast beef on a kaiser roll is unsodden, it’s also not particularly good—think of Arby’s and you’ve got the picture. Gravy and onions are provided gratis as optional toppings—the former a bland broth, the latter a damp repulsive heap.
If, as I suspect, the inspiration for these places is Irish roast beef, you won’t be surprised to hear that things start looking up as you move in the direction of Italian Bensonhurst. Isolated in a residential neighborhood, and nearly impossible to find, Brooklyn’s most beloved sandwich parlor occupies a narrow, nondescript storefront, and only an official city street sign outside—”Monte’s Heroes Expressway”—lets you know some powerful forces champion the place. That Monte’s evolved from a grocery is evident from the merchandise neatly shelved across from the long sandwich counter. A window looks into a kitchen where an elderly white-aproned gentleman sat contemplating his sandwich on a recent afternoon, as other employees bustled around him.
The roast beef hero (“R.B. Deluxe,” $7.50) begins by annealing two slices of mozzarella to the cut surfaces of a crisp demi-baguette, piles on a good quantity of freshly sliced roast beef, then sluices on a flavorful sauce that’s halfway between broth and gravy. Unfortunately, the cheese is of the prepackaged sort, even though fists of homemade mozzarella taunt you from the countertop. Nevertheless, the sandwich is an estimable gut bomb that I dare you to finish. Other heroes include the Monte Deluxe—your choice of three meats (pick soppressata, mortadella, and hot cappicola) on a hero with fontinella cheese, lettuce, tomato, and pickled peppers or mushrooms; and that inscrutable Catskills favorite, roast pork on garlic bread with duck sauce.
Though gravy and mozzarella on a roast beef sandwich may sound weird, this treatment is standard in Bensonhurst. Brooklyn’s premier beachgoing thoroughfare, Stillwell Avenue—which lends its name to the Coney Island subway stop—is home to John’s Deli. Cannily positioned at 86th Street, where the W makes its last groaning turn for a final run to the beach, John’s flaunts a sign painted high up on the side of the building showing a 30-foot overflowing sandwich with the inscription “Hero King.”
Favoring weekend beachgoers, the roast beef hero ($6) is offered Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. It, too, is assembled using a superior demi-baguette with an admirable crust. The beef is sliced from what looks like a Boar’s Head roast, which generally makes a bloody sandwich. But because the meat has relaxed in a hot-water bath for a while, it cooks to the mildest pink and is surpassingly tender. Once again, mozzarella is welded to the sandwich as a first step, only this mozzarella is several notches above the usual pizza melt. The gravy, too, is distinctive, an alarming shade of dark brown and tacky-textured. If you had to drink it you’d retch, but on a sandwich it wails. John’s hero is a Brooklyn masterpiece.
Zeke’s Roast Beef, on the northern border of Bay Ridge, might have taken Roll N Roaster for inspiration. The premises have a graceless fast-food feel, and, in spite of its name, the roast beef sandwich seems more like an afterthought on a menu that features fried chicken, barbecued ribs, baseball-themed burgers, seafood platters, and wraps. Of the three kaiser-roll mills, however, Zeke’s offers the best sandwich, consisting of warm pink beef sliced fairly thin and deposited on a roll of some character. A condiments bar duplicates the one found at Arby’s.
While Monte’s began life as a grocery, Clemente’s clearly originated, and still remains, a neighborhood butcher shop, so that you have to pass a glass case featuring Italian sausage, pork loin, and steaks pinwheeled around a filling of ricotta to reach the sandwich counter. The roast beef hero ($4) is Brooklyn’s best, and an astonishingly good deal. It’s made with a chewy semolina loaf pummeled with thin-sliced roast beef veined with fat and still pink in the middle. The edges of the meat are slightly caramelized, which adds to the beefy flavor. The standard presentation involves no mustard, no mayo—but plenty of warm brown gravy that, canned or not, is pretty damn good. And no cheese. Wear a raincoat to eat this beauty.
A couple blocks west of Clemente’s we noticed a garishly painted corner bar called Wrong Number Lounge, which tempts customers with the sign “Ice Cold Tap Beer/Quarts to Go $3.” As we paused to jot down the address, a couple of burly guys tumbled out the front door clutching baseball bats and stood on the curb glaring at us—clearly not on their way to a baseball game.
Now that’s a real Brooklyn welcome, we thought as we sprinted for the car.