It was veteran Newsday restaurant critic Sylvia Carter who first told me about the sandwich. It seems that decades ago, Brooklynites returning from a day at the borough’s beaches craved a hero made with hot roast beef, fresh mozzarella, and brown gravy of an industrial strength. Sometimes there would be sautéed onions, too. These sandwiches were provided by a string of Italian delis on the way to the beaches, but not quite on them.
She also told me that Roll-N-Roaster in Sheepshead Bay represented a fast food adaptation of the sandwich, but after paying a visit there, I knew there would be better examples. Accordingly, I spent a decade or more looking for hero shops that made compelling versions, and found several still in business, even though the sandwich now flounders in obscurity. By contrast, the Hoboken version of a similar sandwich (gravy drenched hot roast beef and “mutz”) is still fabricated at a half dozen places.
The best version I found, and one still going strong, is that of John’s Deli, which lies at the busy corner of Stillwell Avenue and 86th Street in Gravesend, a little over a mile north of the Coney Island subway station. The compact place, around since 1968, offers dozens upon dozens of hot and cold heroes, and other Italian and Sicilian specialties, many of them fried. But pride of place on the menu still goes to “Johnny roastbeef” (nine-inch hero, $11.50).
It arrives with a figurative drum roll, a modest quantity of hot beef newly sliced from a roast carried forward from the kitchen on a big fork. By Hoboken standards, the quantity of cheese is modest, too, but it’s the midnight-dark gravy where Brooklyn beats Hoboken. The result is an unspeakably rich sandwich that you’ll want to linger over rather than gobble. 2033 Stillwell Ave, at 86th Street, Gravesend