Local Delicacies: Boston’s North Shore Beef

Food Features Sandwiches
Local Delicacies: Boston’s North Shore Beef

As a Midwesterner, Boston conjures up images of lobster rolls and Fenway Franks, cobblestone roads, packed Dunkin’s on every corner, winning sports teams and Sam Adams. While diced lobster smothered in butter and mayonnaise on a split, toasted roll may very well be one of the best sandwiches put to bun, there’s a hyper-regional sandwich from Massachusetts’ North Shore (which stretches from Boston’s north border and continues along the coast toward New Hampshire) that deserves the same flowers: the North Shore Beef.

Imagine my surprise when Brenden Groom, a friend and roast beef enthusiast from Salem, Massachusetts, told me that many locals consider roast beef sandwiches to be the region’s true specialty. On a recent trip to Boston for PAX East, I had the opportunity to experience this delicacy for myself. While we didn’t have time to make the pilgrimage to the North Shore, Brenden steered me toward a reliable spot that could deliver to the area where we were staying: Kelly’s, which claims to be the originator of the regional classic Beef Three-Way.

Unsurprisingly, this sandwich was a cut above the other roast beef sandwiches I’ve had. Its towering layer of juicy, flavorful roast beef was undoubtedly the star of the show. Miraculously, it managed to hold on to every bit of moisture without inadvertently steaming the toasted sesame seed bun in its to-go container. The classic configuration also came smothered in James River barbecue sauce and Cain’s mayonnaise.

Both the mayo and the barbecue sauce are the ideal iteration of their respective categories: Cain’s is richer and thicker than most other brands of mayo, which lets it pack enough flavor to stand out in the wave of beef that floods every bite. James River barbecue, on the other hand, is nearly the opposite: It’s looser than most and packs a stronger punch than other sauces of its ilk. That runniness allows it to seep into the sliced beef in a way that most other sauces couldn’t. It’s a combination that plays off the beef incredibly well, with the barbecue’s sweet and tangy notes balancing out the unctuously rich mayo that delivers an almost buttery sensation to the sandwich, toeing the line of overindulgence without ever crossing the boundary.

A slice of mild cheddar or American cheese acts as a border separating the beef and barbecue sauce from the mayonnaise and top bun. While that placement may seem trivial, it’s actually crucial. The barbecue sauce would likely soak into the sandwich’s bun, deflating its airy texture and potentially keeping it from seeping into the beef, where it works best. Plus, who doesn’t love a little cheese on their sandwich?

In its construction, the Beef Three-Way isn’t too different from the prototypical roast beef that exists in the popular American imagination: pink-ish roasted beef seasoned to the nines on a sesame seed bun with a few different sauces and a slice of cheese. With the North Shore Beef, the devil’s in the details. Regionally available sauces all play the exact roles that they’re meant to, and the beef itself stuns as a soft bomb of flavor and moisture.

Most other roast beef sandwiches I’ve had feature horsey sauce instead of mayonnaise, which makes much more of a difference than one might expect. Horsey sauce tends to mute any zest found in horseradish, highlighting duller spice tones. Typical roast beef barbecue sauce tends to lean into much sweeter territory without any of the bite you’d find in the James River sauce. Again, these details are minuscule, but they have a compounding effect. Where horsey sauce and sweet BBQ sauce tend to clash, creamy mayo and zesty, peppery BBQ sauce work really well together, creating an idealized version of the seemingly common sandwich.

Later, Brenden told me that most shops know and serve the classic Three-Way as I first tried it, but some places put their own spins on it in other variations. Some include toppings like onion rings, and many fans of the North Shore Beef order sandwiches to their own specifications, which surprised me a bit. I’m most familiar with Chicago’s regional food, where there’s a prideful sense of purism in ordering a dog with everything. Ordering ketchup on your dog or asking for no relish won’t usually get you weird looks, but we like to joke that it does.

The Beef Three-Way feels like a soft, flavorful, welcoming sandwich that I wholeheartedly recommend anyone visiting Boston tries. Yes, a lobster roll is delicious too, but you won’t find such a meticulously perfected iteration of the roast beef sandwich anywhere else. 

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