Ask Logan Abbey for a three-way, and you’re not being naughty. Tell him to “murder it,” and you’re not putting out a contract on anyone. Those are just a couple of ways of ordering a North Shore roast beef sandwich, a sloppy mess of rare shaved beef smothered in sauce that is as popular in some parts of Massachusetts as a lobster roll is in Maine.
“It’s been a part of my childhood,” said Abbey, who is from Newburyport, Massachusetts, but has lived in Portland for 13 years and this summer opened a food truck selling North Shore sandwiches. “My dad and I used to go get them all the time. I was amazed it hadn’t really been done in Portland before.”
The pandemic has made travel tricky, but now Portlanders can take a trip to three other cities without leaving town and get a taste of their food culture – through their beef sandwiches.
Abbey and his wife, Alison, launched George’s North Shore food truck Aug. 14, after doing pop-ups since January. (Everyone who works on the truck is from the North Shore.) Halsted’s Chicago Style Eats serves Italian beef sandwiches along with its signature Chicago dogs. And the owners of Roll Call – soon to be both a small brick-and-mortar restaurant and a food truck – are introducing themselves to local diners with their “8-hour House Roast Beef Au Jus,” based on sandwiches well known in central and western New York.
George’s is named after the Abbeys’ dog, himself named for George Costanza, the character on ’90s TV sitcom “Seinfeld.” (The pup, who shows up on the food truck’s social media, resembles Costanza a bit, too.) The North Shore sandwich has been around since the early 1950s, and there are mom-and-pop places all over the region – in towns like Revere, Peabody, Danbury and Salem – that make them. Kelly’s in Revere claims to be the original, “but any person who is really into North Shore beef does not go to Kelly’s,” Abbey said. “Kelly’s is like the McDonald’s of the North Shore beef. They’re too commercial. They forgot what’s important.”
So what is a proper North Shore sandwich?
It’s super rare roast beef shaved ultra thin and served on a toasted onion roll, Abbey explains. The classic sandwich includes mayo, American cheese, and tangy James River BBQ Sauce, a combination that’s also known as a “three-way.” “Murder it” and you’ll get extra sauce, although the regular amount of sauce spilling off the sandwich already makes it look like a crime scene. Some people like to add horseradish as well.
“Lettuce on a North Shore Roast Beef, that’s a big no-no for me,” Abbey said. “It should be served three-way or just cheese and sauce, or any of those combos. If you’ve got to get pickles on it, I’m not going to be offended.”
Abbey, 31, grew up on the sandwiches. His favorite spot to buy them was Courtyard Roast Beef in Newburyport, which closed last year after 36 years in business.
“Even in high school, we wouldn’t ditch class to go smoke pot or drink, we’d ditch class to go get roast beef sandwiches for everyone,” Abbey said.
Abbey moved to Portland after he finished college because he was interested in getting into the brewery industry. He worked at four local breweries before pursuing his “pipe dream,” the food truck.
The truck is out three days a week, usually spending one day at the Eastern or Western Prom and the other two days at local watering holes like Battery Steele or the Portland Zoo. (Check George’s social media for a weekly schedule.)
Abbey estimates that 60 percent of his customers are either Massachusetts transplants or people who have relatives there. “It’s been overwhelming,” he said. “We pretty much sell out every day.”
There is, believe it or not, a Facebook group called North Shore Beefs that has more than 18,000 members and consists of nothing but North Shore sandwich reviews. On a scale of one to 10, George’s, so far, consistently gets an overall score of eight or above. Some people dock Abbey a point or so because they think his sandwich, at $14, is overpriced. The tone of the site is pure Ben Affleck in “Good Will Hunting.” One reviewer called George’s “an oasis in the beefless wilderness of Maine.”
Abbey said he plans to run his truck until at least Thanksgiving, and would like to keep going until Christmas. This winter, he will either look for a spot to set up residency or do more restaurant pop-ups.
Chef Michael Sindoni of Roll Call initially considered focusing on a North Shore sandwich, but he felt the sauces and cheese were “hiding the beef.” Add to that the fact that he didn’t have an emotional connection to the sandwich the way that North Shore fans do, and “it just didn’t do it for me.” George’s came on the scene at about the same time. That was “complete coincidence,” Sindoni said, “but we were probably thinking the same thing at the same time – that no one’s really doing a great roast beef sandwich here.”
Both Sindoni and his wife Siobhan, who is a sommelier, are from the Northeast but were living in Dallas when they first visited Portland in 2015. They liked the city so much they decided to move here a couple of years ago and start their own business. (They both still work for a hotel management company as well.) Sindoni’s brother, Nick, was interested in opening a sandwich shop, so he followed the couple here and will be running the day-to-day operations of Roll Call, which will be both a food trailer and a casual soup-and-sandwich place on the West End, next door to Little Giant restaurant.
“I live on the West End,” Sindoni said, “and I feel like there’s just not a lot of sandwich options.”
During quarantine in the spring, the trio had a lot of time to experiment. The roast beef sandwich they came up with is made with thinly-sliced top round that has been dry aged for two weeks, “not to the point where it’s funky like a dry-aged steak, but just to intensify it a little bit,” Sindoni said. The trim is roasted “until it’s almost burnt, like super-caramelized,” and used to make stock. Sindoni then adds pureed, caramelized onions to the stock to make an au jus.
“The reason we go for the deep caramelization on the meat and the onions is because the meat itself, after it’s seasoned, is cooked in a really, high-humidity, low-temperature oven,” Sindoni said. “That’s how we get end-to-end medium rare. It doesn’t go from gray on the outside to red in the center. It’s all one doneness. We sacrifice roasting at a high temperature, but we replace whatever flavor is lost with the au jus that has the onions in it.”
They pump the au jus through a portable coffee dispenser that keeps the sauce at exactly 140 degrees – not so hot that it will cook the meat, but hot enough to keep health inspectors happy.
The beef is drenched in the au jus, then placed on an onion roll from the Mainely Grains Bakery in South Portland. The sandwich gets another splash of sauce, followed by Bavarian mustard and horseradish.
The 8-Hour House Roast Beef Au Jus is similar to one that Sindoni loved to eat when he lived in Syracuse and frequented a pub called Clark’s Ale House, which is no longer open. Both sandwiches are reminiscent of the western New York beef on weck, popular in Buffalo, which is served on a kummelweck roll – a roll topped with kosher salt and caraway seeds.
Sindoni says he’s been impressed with the way Portlanders have embraced the $11 sandwich. “I’ve been a chef for 20 years, and I’m so used to accommodating special requests,” he said, noting that he has had few of those here. “If you make something good, the city wants it, and they want it the way you serve it, which is very refreshing.”
Sindoni said both the café and the food trailer should launch in a few weeks – the café with takeout service to start. Meanwhile, he’s continuing with pop-ups. Roll Call typically sets up inside Austin Street Brewery on Fox Street on Tuesdays, and at the restaurant space on Clark Street on Sundays. (See the Roll Call Instagram account for a schedule.)
Hasted’s Chicago Style Eats
Maybe the Midwest is your preferred destination. The $8 beef sandwich from Hasted’s Chicago Style Eats consists of shaved beef cooked in an Italian-inspired au jus, according to Joel Jones, a partner in the venture. The au jus is then ladled onto the beef on French bread, he said, or customers can dip their sandwich in it. Toppings include hot giardiniera and sweet peppers sauteed until soft and bathed with red wine vinegar.
Jones and his partners in the truck, Angela and Jeff Aspito, all grew up in Chicago – Joel and Jeff lived just eight houses apart as kids. Angela Aspito was sommelier and wine director, and later the CEO, at The Signature Room on Michigan Avenue, at the top of the John Hancock building.
The Aspitos moved to Portland about four years ago, with Jones following last year. Every time they fly back to Chicago, Jones said, “the first place we go is to Portillo’s to eat exactly what we serve.”
Halsted’s launched about eight weeks ago, and has been attracting a lot of Chicago transplants, Jones said. The truck will be at Bunker Brewing every Friday in October. On weekends, Halsted’s is usually parked at either the Eastern Prom or at Cornerstone Tile at 1438 Washington Ave. (Check Halsted’s Facebook or Instagram accounts for a schedule.)
Just look for the map of Chicago on the side of the truck, and the Harry Caray and Papa Bear Halas bobbleheads peering from the windows.