Monday, April 25, 2011

Beef on weck at a Montreal style Jewish deli in Brooklyn?

Beef on weck (pronounced "wick") is a sandwich I got to know early in my career, when I was making frequent trips to Buffalo to visit a client there. It's sliced roast beef au jus with horseradish served on a kummelweck roll. I loved the way the intense flavors of the caraway ("kummel") seeds and coarse-grained salt on the roll, and the touch of horseradish, complemented the richness of the rare beef. At the time (early 1970s) I was also introduced to the spicy chicken wing, accompanied by celery and bleu cheese dressing. While I found the wings delightful, if I'd been asked which Buffalo specialty would take the nation by storm, I'd have bet on beef on weck, which also seems to be the sentimental favorite of many Buffalonians.

Until a few days ago, I'd never had beef on weck more than seventy or so miles from Buffalo, so I was surprised to see it listed on the menu of Mile End, a Montreal style Jewish delicatessen not far from where I live in Brooklyn which has been quite a hit with local foodies (at least those of the non-vegan sort). I had to give it a try.

The sandwich, as presented (see photo) was much as I knew it. It could've been from the place near the intersection of Main Street and Transit Road, about a quarter mile from our friends' house, where I usually get my beef on weck fix these days. One bite, though, told me I was far from the Niagara Frontier. A tipoff was on the menu. Mile End's version uses something definitely non-Buffalonian: wagyū beef. I'd never had this much-hyped Japanese style (I presume Mile End's wagyū comes from domestic cattle, probably cross-bred wagyū and angus) beef. It was as tender as its reputation has it, but, to me, the texture was a little too soft and smooth. It seemed a bit wan and short on flavor. The jus, however, was very tasty, and made up for the flavor deficiency. The other ingredients were superb. The roll was softer than usual (like the beef), but not unpleasantly so. It had a rich, slightly sweet taste, and the caraway and sea salt were delightful flavor bombs. This being a Jewish deli, horseradish was not an option in a dainty cup on the side. It was served in the sandwich, in just the right dosage.

All in all, a good sandwich, and evidently popular, as I heard two other customers order it in the short time I was at the deli. My only suggestion is to forget the wagyū and go to a purebred angus beef with more flavor and a more toothsome texture. Wagyū seems an attempt to yuppify a quintessentially blue-collar treat; a (dare I say?) inauthentic touch.

As to how a Buffalo specialty got on the menu of a Montreal deli in Brooklyn I can only guess. Buffalo's well known economic troubles have made it lose population for many years, creating a Buffalonian diaspora that has resulted in beef on weck being offered in places like Wilmington, North Carolina. (Update: thanks to Dan Williams, I now know that it's available in my old home town, Tampa.) Perhaps some expat Buffalonians made it to Montreal and started a beef on weck craze there. More likely, I think, is that many western New Yorkers favor the Adirondack region of New York, a little to the south of Montreal, as a vacation spot. This may have spurred a demand for beef on weck there, and Montrealais visiting the area may have tried and liked it. My quick web search for beef on weck in that part of the state didn't yield any results, but it did resolve one question: why it is that hot dogs with chili, which in western New York are called Texas hots, are called Michigans in the north country. As the linked Wikipedia entry states, the popularity of these in northern New York spread northward to Quebec, so it's possible the same thing happened with beef on weck.

If you want to try making your own beef on weck almost from scratch (you don't have to bake your own rolls), Bobby Flay has a recipe.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:16 PM

    As a native Buffalonian living in Brooklyn, I really enjoyed reading this. I myself prefer weck over wings any day of the week. But, alas, I have never had good beef on weck outside of the Buffalo area. I think it's because the roll is never quite right. Whoever supplies kummelweck (or kimmelweck) rolls in Buffalo must have a limited distribution area. Anyway, thanks for the tip on Mile End.