Years ago, Newsday restaurant critic Sylvia Carter told me about one of Brooklyn’s longstanding but little-known foodways: When Brooklynites came home after a day at the beach, they liked to chow down on roast beef sandwiches. A ring of delis and restaurants persists, most a few blocks inland, that offer excellent roast beef.
As the temperature soared to over 90 degrees last weekend, I decided to revisit this phenomenon redolent of summers past, by trying and comparing the roast beef sandwiches at Roll N Roaster and Brennan and Carr.
Roast beef by the beach at Roll N Roaster
Roll N Roaster was founded in the early 1970s right on Emmons Avenue just down the street from dozens of fishing boats that take weekend fishermen a few miles out in search of porgies, bluefish, and seabass — nowadays interspersed with a whale-sighting cruise or two. The restaurant is a gigantic structure in yellow and orange that looks like a typical fast-food spot, except much bigger. Years ago, there was a smaller branch in the East Village at 11th Street and Third Avenue. Somehow, bereft of the beach, the roast beef never tasted the same.
At RNR, everything is made in-house: The buns are seeded kaiser rolls soft as a feather pillow; the roast beef — which may be ordered medium or well-done — is moist and rimmed with fat. Years ago, the kitchen exclusively stuck to those two levels of doneness, but these days when you order the former it arrives pretty much medium rare, so order it medium. The sandwich ($7.45) is on the flattish side, but tasting of freshly cooked and just sliced beef.
The hacks: For those who love LA’s French dip, a cup of broth for dipping may be had for 65 cents extra, a worthy addition especially if several people are eating sandwiches together. For an additional dollar, you can have the so-called NY strip steak sandwich, which is a decent piece of beef that flops over the edge of the bun. (How can they do it at that price?) Avoid RNR’s invitation to put “cheez” on everything.
A 1930s-era restaurant at Brennan and Carr
If you ever doubted that this phenomenon of beach roast beef is at least partly Irish, look to Brennan and Carr, founded at the end of Gravesend Neck Road in 1938 when this part of Brooklyn was mainly farms. The place looks like a stockade from the Civil War crossed with an English Tudor cottage, and boasts two darkish dining rooms inside. Order at the outside window, or traipse through the open kitchen and sit down.
Once again, the sandwich ($8.75) is served on a kaiser roll — the unofficial bread of NYC — though one not quite as good as RNR’s. The beef is piled on with a more generous hand as befits the slightly higher price. Both sides of the bun are first dipped in beef broth, so it isn’t necessary to order the broth separately, which is good because a cup costs $4.50. The beef here is as much steamed as roasted, but that’s not a bad thing, since it develops a bouncy texture.
The hacks: Reflecting its maritime location, a bowl of very good New England clam chowder is offered for the same price as the beef broth, and it’s well worth getting. And while RNR offers soft serve for dessert, this place has some pretty good blueberry pie ($4.60, a la mode $8.95).
All things considered, the Roll N Roaster sandwich is superior to Brennan and Carr’s, with a better texture to the beef and a tastier roll. The latter is good, too, and the dining-in experience is more wonderful at Brennan and Carr’s. There, you’ll feel like you’re in a historic structure, and that a file of Civil War soldiers may come marching in at any moment, and the use of real plates and beer mugs is another plus. On the other hand, you can take a stroll along the bay after a meal at Roll N Roaster, and bottles of Champagne are available if you’re in a particularly festive mood. Both places have parking lots.
A few final words
Okay, I’ve been holding out on you. There is another species of Brooklyn roast beef that takes the form of a hero sandwich topped with fresh mozzarella and soaked with brown gravy, one that may be acquired at delis or Italian salumerias, a dozen or so of which I know about. In fact, G&S Pork Store is only three blocks west of Brennan and Carr on Avenue U, where for $15, you can get a roast beef sandwich of amazing length that most diners would find impossible to finish. The mozzarella is squeaky fresh, the beef caramelized around the edges, and the roll perfect for its purpose: Consider this a third option.