Sometimes you need to give a sandwich a second chance. I've been arguing with a friend, a trusted seeker of New York's best food, GutterGourmet, for almost two years about a sandwich, the hot roast beef in New York City at Defonte's of Brooklyn.
The argument started in February 2009, after Defonte's opened a Gramercy location, and Gutter's raves began. But on three occasions the sandwich didn't impress me. It was fine. It wasn't bad, but there wasn't much meat, it wasn't moist, and the signature fried eggplant was a flaccid afterthought with little flavor. Our argument heated up a year later when Artichoke Basille's owners opened This Little Piggy Had Roast Beef in the East Village.
"Unfortunately," Gutter wrote, punning on the 'That Way', the name of This Little Piggy's roast beef with mozzarella sandwich, "I have to pronounce judgment and recommend if you must go to This Little Piggy that you go "That Way", straight up Third Avenue to 21st Street and order a roast beef sandwich with fresh mozzarella on a roll with your choice of toppings at Defonte's."
I have a soft spot for This Little Piggy's 'This Way', a hot roast beef sandwich with cheese whiz on a roll. And I maintain that it's a separate genre of beef sandwich, one that is also different from the iconic Philly cheesesteak because it's not cooked on a flattop. The most well-known examples of this roll, whiz and dipping jus genre in New York City are at This Little Piggy and the two Brooklyn spots that inspired it: Brennan & Carr and Roll-N-Roaster.
Last week on Grub Street, Ray Lemoine and Mike Herman trashed some sandwiches at these roast beef shops. Drawing controversy in the lead-up to next month's opening of their planned offshoot of Harrison's in the front of the Bowery Poetry Club is savvy. Hopefully, their sandwich will be better than the barbecue glazed looking version in the photo with their interview.
Lemoine and Herman were a reminder that it was time to revisit Defonte's for a hot roast beef #20 according to Gutter's specs: "Ask for Nick Defonte. Tell him you want roast beef, bloody-heart-still-beating-red rare, on a soft egg roll, and to dip the roll in the au jus. Fresh mutz, hold the eggplant and add sweet and hot peppers to taste. No lettuce or tomato!"
Nick was there, and made the sandwich (though he audibled in sesame bread), and you have to give it to Gutter, this is a hell of a sandwich — thin-sliced, pink, juicy roast beef, jus dripping all over your fingers and onto the sandwich paper. Tang, spice and sweetness with savory jus that sops into the bread.
This was not the same sandwich that was served when they opened, and that I'd had three times since. This was a return-order item, a sandwich to add to your rotation. You have to wonder if that was because it was made by the master himself, Nick Defonte, who handed it over with a smile, and asked, "What else? That's it? You came just for that? You got it!" It's also a different animal than the roast beef and whiz genre.
So put #20 on your checklist, hold the eggplant, ask for it bleeding and just be sure to ask for Nick.
Defonte's of Brooklyn, 261 3rd Avenue, New York, NY
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