Call them heroes, hoagies, subs, wedges, grinders, po'boys, torpedoes, or zeps — just as pizza, burgers, and hot dogs have unique regional variations, so do sandwiches. Take the roast beef sandwich, for example (not to be confused with Philly cheese steaks). There are many interesting local and regional variations on roast beef sandwiches, many available in New York City.
It's true, and interesting, one of the most famous variations is not represented in Gotham (not yet, at least). The Chicago version, popularly referred to as Italian beef and purveyed by storied shops Mr. Beef and Al's #1 Beef, features a rivalry just as intense as Pat's vs. Geno's. There's no good reason why New York doesn't yet have it's own Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich shops. Long Italian hero rolls, garnineira, beef — (someone should get on this). But you'll definitely find versions of the style popularized by Philippe's in Los Angeles, credited for inventing the "French Dip," hot roast beef on a baguette submerged in au jus drippings.
As for local styles of roast beef, New York City has quite a few. Brennan & Carr's wonderful shack opened in 1938 on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn. Like Philippe's, Brennan & Carr's moistens (or drowns depending on your preference) its roast beef sandwiches, served on rolls with their famous broth. Coincidentally, Roll-N-Roaster, also originated in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. It has been around for a mere 40 years and is a step closer to its Philadelphian cousin by virtue of adding cheese whiz (cheez?) to its hot roast beef sandwiches.
That's not all. The Staten Island boys best known for the expanding Artichoke pizza empire, recently opened This Little Piggy Had Roast Beef in the East Village. With Piggy's cheese whiz laden "This Way" and its au jus dunked "That Way," it pays homage to both Roll-N-Roaster and Brennan & Carr's. Finally, we must mention DeFonte's. Born in 1922 in Red Hook and thankfully exported to Manhattan on Third Avenue and 21st Street. DeFonte's serves huge roast beef heroes with homemade fresh mozzarella, natural jus and an optional slice of fried eggplant.
Now the Bostonian's have entered the fray with Bowery Beef, located in The Bowery Poetry Club & Café just around the corner from This Little Piggy. Bowery Beef is modeled after a relatively new regional style of roast beef sandwich started in the 80's in Massachusetts — at Harrison's in North Andover to be precise. Bowery Beef's owners, who obviously care about authenticity, even snagged Patrick Sweetra (a nice Swedish boy and longtime slicer at Harrison's) to oversee the operation.
What is this unique regional roast beef sandwich? I observed the whole operation. Industrial hamburger buns are branded with a miniature flame-torched brand so each bun displays a "BB" so as not be confused with the competition. Not to worry, since there are no comparisons with the Brooklyn-born roast beef sandwiches. Thinly sliced, rare hot fresh roast beef is shaved onto the bun and hand-formed into a thick, compressed pile. You then have a choice of white American cheese, mayo, mustard, horseradish, and the de rigueur, James River sweet tomato based BBQ sauce from (where else?) Virginia!
I got mine (two, for $6 each) with cheese, sauce, and horseradish. Messier than even a fully submerged Brennan & Carr sandwich, it was nevertheless delicious and strangely satisfying. While I may prefer some of the other styles, there is certainly room enough to welcome a unique roast beef sandwich into the ever-expanding melting pot of New York City sandwichdom.