Notable Sandwiches #11: Beef on Weck
Buffalo's other culinary icon is a dann good sandwich
Last fall, when I first told my mother about this newsletter and the Notable Sandwiches project, the entry she was most looking forward to was the “Beef on Weck,” number twelve on the Wikipedia List (and first in the hearts of Western New Yorkers.) So, when Talia tested positive for Covid a few days ago, it seemed only appropriate that I would pinch-hit on this week’s column. I’m nowhere near the writer Talia is, and like most of you, I’d love to hear her thoughts on this sandwich (and just about anything else). But we’re a team, so I hope you’ll forgive this week’s shortcomings. At the very least, I’m sure my mom will enjoy it, and I’m nothing if not a momma’s boy. — David
As long as I can remember, I’ve been on the hunt for the perfect roast beef sandwich. I’d like to think this pursuit goes back to an original platonic ideal I tasted as a toddler in Scotland, where I lived until I was two years old. More likely, it stems from my first trip to Arby’s a few years later, on a visit to my dad’s family in Wisconsin. I loved Arby’s then, and still do. In junior high, my go-to food-court meal at the mall was an Arby’s roast beef sandwich with Horsey sauce, curly fries and a jamocha shake. Two decades ago, I was an impoverished college grad recently settled in New York—fresh off four years spent back in Arby’s-bereft Scotland—and it became a minor mecca for me: on numerous occasions I’d make a detour for the Arby’s location at 6th Avenue and Bleeker Street in the Village on my long walk home from work in midtown to my apartment on the Lower East Side. One evening I arrived famished, only to discover my beloved Arby’s had tragically transformed into a Wendy’s. It was legitimately crushing—and a good early lesson in the ephemeral nature of New York real estate.
The “Beef on Weck” sandwich is short for “Roast Beef and Horseradish on a Kümmelweck Roll”, and it’s Buffalo’s stab at creating heaven in beef and bread. In fact, in 1999 Gourmet Magazine (RIP) called the version served at Schwabl’s restaurant “the best roast beef sandwich in America.” That’s high praise, as the roast beef sandwich is in some ways the king of sandwiches, the original—what the Earl of Sandwich requested during that fateful card game in 1762. Wikipedia’s List of Notable Sandwiches contains a surfeit of roast beef entries, including last week’s (the Bauru), and next week’s (the Beirut), with the French Dip looming on the horizon. New England has a strange and noteworthy roast beef sandwich culture, Chicago has its Italian Beef, and New Orleans its Po’ Boy. If the beef on weck was indeed “the best roast beef sandwich in America,” I had to try one.
Its origins go back centuries, perhaps as far as 1837, when Sebastian Schwabl arrived in Buffalo from Germany, and started selling food and beer to the city's burgeoning Teutonic community. In recent years, Charlie “the Butcher” Roesch has become the sandwich’s foremost evangelist, “the ultimate authority on meat of all kinds,” as Jane and Michael Stern wrote in that Gourmet treatise from 1999. A third-generation Buffalo butcher—his grandfather also served as the city's mayor—Roesch dates the the sandwich to the 1880s, when one savvy bar owner spiked some rolls with caraway seeds and surplus pretzel salt, loaded it with tender, thin-sliced roast beef, and slathered it all in horseradish and jus. “As diners slaked the thirst these sandwiches induced, beer sales soared, and Buffalo’s passion for beef on weck was born.” It wasn’t the first time that a work of genius was inspired by a desire to sell beer.
The Sword and the Sandwich is a newsletter about serious extremism and equally serious sandwiches. Please consider supporting this work with a paid subscription:
There’s something special in the devotion that the beef on weck inspires in Buffalonians, a fact I attribute to the sandwich’s rigorous simplicity: while the preparation may vary from establishment to establishment, its ingredients are immutable. Still, the singularity of the kümmelweck roll has kept the beef on weck from the national acceptance enjoyed by another iconic Buffalo foodstuff, the wing. It’s not hard to find decent roast beef sandwich with horseradish in New York City, but good luck sourcing that kümmelweck.
I learned this yesterday, when I went out in search of a Big Apple beef on weck. There are a couple of spots that offer the sandwich, but not nearly enough of them, and none at a price-point that I was willing to risk omicron for. Thankfully, I had in my inbox a video clip my mom had sent of celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian (who is married to a Buffalo native) preparing his favorite sandwich for television audiences. It all looked easy enough for a reasonably proficient home cook, so I decided to give it a go. I bought the smallest top round I could find, a couple kaiser rolls, and a small jar of caraway seeds; everything else I had on hand. What I made was a bastardized version of Zakarian’s recipe, which is in turn a bastardized version of the Buffalo original. At Schwabl’s, they roast their beef “fast, at a high temperature”; Charlie the Butcher slow roasts his at low temperatures over 18 hours. Since that was roughly the amount of time I had before this column was due to publish, I decided to split the difference between the Schwabl and Charlie methods, following the recipe below.
My conclusion is that the sandwich lives gloriously up to the devotion it inspires. If the roast beef sandwich is the quintessence of the form, then beef on weck has a legitimate claim to supremacy.
The beef on weck: a good fucking sandwich.
Beef on Weck Recipe
By David Swanson
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour, plus ten minutes resting time
Total Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
One 2.2 pound eye of round roast, room temperature
8 slivers of fresh garlic
One cup marinade (see below)
2 teaspoons dijon mustard
2 teaspoons olive oil
3 teaspoons Italian seasoning (oregano, sage, parsley, thyme)
kosher salt and pepper
Half a cup of beef broth
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 kaiser rolls
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons melted butter
Half a cup of horseradish sauce (see below)
Marinade roast for up to 24-hours.
Remove from marinade, dry with paper towels, and bring roast to room temperature. Use the tip of a sharp knife to make 8 incisions around the roast, putting a sliver of garlic into each.
Preheat oven to 450°F.
Mix mustard and olive oil, and slather all over the roast with a brush. Then sprinkle liberally with Italian herbs, salt and pepper. Set the roast on a rack over a roasting pan. Add broth, Worcestershire, and soy to the pan. Roast meat for 20 minutes, then remove from oven, and reduce to 225°F and roast for another hour, until internal temperature reaches 135°F.
Meanwhile, make the horseradish sauce (recipe below).
Allow the meat to rest for up to an hour. Pour the liquid from the roasting pan into a pot and let simmer.
Return the oven to 350°F. Brush the tops of the Kaiser rolls with melted butter and sprinkle liberally with caraway seeds and kosher salt. Toast for 5 minutes.
Slather the interiors of the rolls with horseradish sauce. Slice the roast as thinly as possible, dipping each slice into the jus, then filling the rolls.
Eat immediately. You should have plenty for leftovers.
This step is probably unnecessary—do you really need to marinate a roast? Well, variations on this marinade has served me well for steaks, so I decided to give it a shot. Simply whisk the following ingredient together and pour over the roast, in a Ziploc bag.
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 tablespoons Italian seasoning
1/2 teaspoon pepper
salt to taste
pinch of red pepper
Horseradish Sauce Recipe
This was a bit of a cheat. Earlier in the week I had made an aioli with all of these ingredients, except for the horseradish. So I just mixed that into what I already had on hand. To make it from scratch, combine the below ingredients in a small bowl. Season with kosher salt and pepper.
3 tablespoons horseradish
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/2 tablespoon truffle oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
sea salt to taste
Blend until smooth.
Refrigerate until ready to serve.