New York City wants and needs a new Boston interloper like, well, the Red Sox want Johnny Damon back and like the Yankees want say, Papelbon to come to the Bronx. In other words, let's stop the New England cross-transplanting with Frank Pepe coming to Yonkers. At least that's the attitude you wanted to take when you read Daniel Maurer's interview with Ray Lemoine and Mike Herman about the roast beef sandwich they planned to serve out of the Bowery Poetry Club & Café (of all places) in New York City. After all, these guys came into town basically shooting down some of New York's favorite roast beef sons.
But here's the deal: New York City has room for another style of roast beef sandwich. And that's what the guys behind Bowery Beef are doing — a different style of roast beef. Is it Defonte's? Is it Roll-N-Roaster? Brennan and Carr's? This Little Piggy? No. It's its own beast — and covered in BBQ sauce. That said, both with sauce and without, it's pretty damned good — minus the generic bun that is (though you have to love the 'BB' branding on top).
And get this, the guys behind the sandwich, who you may have wanted to hate... they're actually really cool. So there's that too. Ray Lemoine was amiable enough to answer questions about his new sandwich. Find out why and how this all happened below.
Beef and poetry, how do they fit?
I grew up in North Andover, Mass., where Harrison's Roast Beef is the town square cum high school hangout, drug depot, and of course, the best restaurant. As soon as we saw Bowery Poetry Cafe's cafe was vacant, we had the idea to do beef. It's a low-overhead concept, like Subway. Poetry and beef have nothing in common, at least that I know of (though I bet Rilke loved roast beef!). But our sandwich comes from Boston's North Shore, one of the most literary places in the world. And with Bowery Poetry Cafe in particular, the Beatnik ties are legitimate. Jack Kerouac is from Lowell, Mass., a few miles up the Merrimack River from North Andover.
Meat-nerd me, what's the philosophy behind this beef?
Honestly, I could answer but I'd be overreaching. That's a question for Pat Sweetra, the sandwich maker.
And the slicing?
You take a cue from Harrison's in North Andover, Mass. The flavor, sauce, cheese, horseradish, assembly, and patty — what's the philosophy?
Has your sandwich improved upon Harrison's?
We could never improve perfection. We hope to get as close as we can.
Have you tasted the roast beef at Brennan, This Little Piggy, and Roll-N-Roaster? How about Defonte's?
I've been to Piggy and Roll-N-Roaster, and like them both, but we're closer to Roll-N-Roaster, though our sauce is not au jus. I've meant to hit Brennan's and Defonte's for, hmm, a decade now. Ever since I dated a girl from Bensonhurst.
Brining a Bah-stahn sandwich to New York's Bowery, isn't that a little like bringing a Gotham version of New England Clam Chowder to Union Street?
Boston and New York used to square off at CBGB's 30 years ago. SSD versus Agnostic Front. DYS versus Cro Mags. In the late 80's it was Youth Crew vs Slapshot. Then in the 90's it was DMS versus FSU. In each instance, everyone became friends. This is Bowery tradition.
What's Boston's best sandwich?
Boston proper has Eagles Deli. They used to do the Awesome Chicken, which was world-class. But they renovated and changed the menu. I haven't lived in the Bean for so long that I can't name a single other place. North of Boston is another story: Harrison's, Nick's, Supreme, and Peter's Super Beef. Clam rolls up in Ipswich and Essex rule. Roy Moore's Lobster shack on Bearskin Neck in Rockport, Mass., has the freshest, best, and cheapest lobster roll south of mid-Maine.
How have New Yorkers reacted so far?
People seem to like the sandwich. At least they say they do. A lot of customers are ordering a second, third, or even fourth beef.
Roast beef with BBQ sauce — some would say that's not right. Speak to this pairing's origin.
1951, Revere Beach: Kelly's Roast Beef opens. Now they're a $50 million a year business. They created the sandwich and the market and now dozens upon dozens of roast beef shops operate around the North Shore.
Do you guys make the BBQ sauce?
No. But we can't find it here in the metro area, so we import it.
You use Sabrett's rolls, right? Is this permanent?
I love those rolls. But we're changing it up to see what we like best.
A week into 2011 you hadn't set up and words were flying with New York City's well-regarded roast beef spots. You said you wouldn't 'double-dip' buns like Brennan & Carr because it should be moist enough, and that This Little Piggy doesn't put care into process.
I would never say those things. My partner tends to answer questions with slightly more depth, so he was explaining something and said that. I love the Piggy This Way. You can ask them — my phone number has ordered dozens of deliveries.
Roll-N-Roaster probably got the biggest compliment when you said they're closer to what a "Mass sandwich" is.
They buy the same meat as us.
Some would say that's savvy business, coming into town guns blazing. Was that the philosophy? Is there any bad blood?
Yes, this was a strategy. Guns blazing, all the sh@#-talking, that was my partner, who could answer a yes or no question by delivering a 100K-Word manuscript. Did I want him to talk sh@#? No. Did he mean to talk sh@#? No. Did I know he was going to say that sh@#? Kind of, yeah. Deploying Mike Herman of Mike's Apartment fame (man about town, Phish fan, friend of Axl, Jersey guy) meant headlines and attention. Which leads to... Despite all the development, the Bowery isn't the pedestrian wonderland one might imagine. We knew we had a tough location with high rent. We were introducing a new product to the most crowded market in America. We had to make noise to generate interest. Also: Beef over beef — that was really dumb and funny to me. Other people may take a sandwich seriously enough to have bad blood over a stupid comment someone makes. I don't. It's supposed to be fun. As much as I love food, it's not serious in the way that, say, Libyan forces mowing down civilians is... I have bad blood with oppressive regimes. Not fellow sandwich-makers.
What haven't I asked about your sandwich you wish you'd been asked?
Are there any homoerotic overtones to a hot beef sandwich on the Bowery at a poetry club known for attracting a vibrant pan-sexual crowd? And the answer is yes.
Besides your own sandwich, what's New York's best sandwich?
New York has too many amazing places to name. Does Gray's Papaya count? I lived across from the one on 8th St/6th Ave. They sold 8,000 hot dogs a day. I will always be in awe of the mighty Papaya.
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