Boston-Area Roast Beef Will Take On New York’s ‘Crappy’ Competition

Photo: Courtesy of Harrison’s

Remember Mike Herman from the infamous Mike’s Apartment? Last time we checked in with him, he was aiming to take over ACME, possibly with the involvement of Paul Sevigny. That never happened because, as Herman explains, “The owner was too much of a lying, sleazy guy and Paul got lured into a quicker turnaround deal with Nur.” But Herman has now snagged some prime realty: the front café of the Bowery Poetry Club. Next month, as previously hinted at, he and writer Ray LeMoine plan to open an offshoot of Harrison’s, the North Andover, Massachusetts, roast-beef institution.

LeMoine, a onetime “Yankees Suck” T-shirt peddler, briefly worked at Harrison’s as a teenager (“the kids who worked there were these hippie druggies and we thought it was so funny,” he says) and is bringing longtime slicer Patrick Sweetra here, along with Sweetra’s right-hand man. The back room will continue to host music and slam poetry, but in the front room you’ll now be able to score $5 bagels and lox, Blue Bottle drip coffee in the mornings, and $5 roast-beef sandwiches and adult beverages at night, till 5 a.m. No joke, the coming of a new roast-beef sandwich is an answer to Grub Street’s constant prayers, so we sat down with the duo to talk top-round.

There’s a longstanding debate about who makes the best roast-beef sandwich in the Boston area.
Herman: Harrison’s has the cult following — the de facto crown of the best sandwich in the region. Nick’s is closer to Boston so they get a lot of attention.
LeMoine: A lot of people say Nick’s because it is a really good sandwich and they’re easier to get to, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the best. Some people say Bill and Bob’s, and no one says Kelly’s.

Okay, so if Harrison’s is the best, what makes it so?
Herman: The concept of a roast-beef sandwich isn’t something that was invented up there. You have the kummelweck in Buffalo, the hot beef in Chicago, but the one on the North Shore is less frills. You have your bun, your beef, usually James River BBQ sauce, and it’s with or without cheese. When it comes to the beef itself, some places make it cheaper and quicker by roasting their beef quicker and roasting it for two hours at a high temperature. Obviously a slower roast makes for more tender beef. What Pat at Harrison’s does is they have three different temperatures — they start with a low temperature for the first two hours, then they turn the temperature up for another three or four hours, and then they hold it at a lower temperature. The process of lowering the temperature in that third resting phase retains most of the moisture. A lot of these other shops take it out quickly and don’t roast or rest it properly, so when they slice it a lot of the juices come out, so it’s not as moist. They slice it thicker so you have a thick piece of beef and it’s harder to chew. Some places like Arby’s or This Little Piggy will just take the slices and then slam it onto a bun.

But not so at Harrison’s?
Herman: They take the thin slices and then form what they call a burger, or a patty. Pat takes the slices of beef and picks the edges off that are brown or hard, and he forms it with his hand and when they’re forming it the experienced guys can feel inconsistencies within the patty (pieces of fat or skin) and pick them out. If you put that on the bun and take a bite out of it, it’ll melt in your mouth.

Does it matter where you get your meat from? Are you sticklers about getting the buns from a certain bakery?
Herman: No, it doesn’t matter to us. They’re using a standard top round — hence our joke about “inorganic fast food from far away.” We’re not using local beef; we’re not using free range, grass-fed …
LeMoine: No grass-fed buns!

What’s your stance on gravy? Will you “double dip” the buns like at Brennan & Carr?
Herman: No, because if it’s done properly it should be pretty much as moist as it should be — you don’t need to re-add any moisture to the process.

How do Roll-n-Roaster or This Little Piggy compare?
LeMoine: I would think Roll-n-Roaster is probably a little closer to what a Mass sandwich is. This Little Piggy seems to just do a cheesesteak on a bun. We’re serving a raw warm roast-beef sandwich — they’re serving a cheesesteak-y sandwich with gravy on it. It’s the difference between a Cubano and a ham and cheese.
Herman: And they’re not really putting care into their process.

They’re nearby to you — you don’t really consider them competition?
Herman: There will be no comparison between us and This Little Piggy because a good beef shop will not pre-slice their beef and have a vat of beef in a tray waiting to be made into a sandwich. You see these other shitty places cutting corners. If you pre-slice a top round and put it into a tray with the drippings, that’s one way to counteract the half-assed cooking process — to leave it in the juice. But you end up recooking the beef in the sauce after it’s sliced, and that fucks with the tenderness because you’re cooking it twice.

Final question: How do $5 roast-beef sandwiches fit into Bowery 2.0?
LeMoine: Everything’s too expensive on the Bowery. You have Pulino’s and it’s like “that’s three dollars more than it should be, goddammit!”
Herman: We’re across the street from a $3 biscuit.
LeMoine: We’re the jerk-offs! We’re idiots and we know we’re sitting next to Double Crown, Peels, DBGB, and Pulino’s. We’re not competing with these people — we’re offering a cheaper alternative, but we don’t want to say our quality is any less. We’re only able to do this at the price we’re doing it because of the unique situation of the space. We have a communist scenario. [The owners] are businessmen, but they run a nonprofit side of the business and it’s cool — it’s one of the last cool spaces in the area and the fact that they chose us to come in, we have to produce. We have to make the best sandwich.

Boston-Area Roast Beef Will Take On New York’s ‘Crappy’