Roast beef on kümmelweck, better known simply as beef on weck, is a humble sandwich. It's a venerated staple in Buffalo-area restaurants and taverns, yet mysteriously, has not taken a solid foothold in the Rochester area in the way that Buffalo's other culinary pillar, the chicken wing, has.
Beef on weck consists of only three parts: the kümmelweck bun (quintessentially evenly flecked with caraway seeds and Kosher salt), the roast beef (ideally a pinkish medium-rare, sufficiently saturated with its own natural juices), and the horseradish (classically strong and searing), meaning all three must make the grade for the sandwich to stand out. Traditionally, you'll usually find a cup of horseradish, a cup of au jus, and a Kosher pickle spear alongside the main attraction on the plate.
In an attempt to seek out some of Rochester's beef on weck offerings, my casual research identified about a dozen places that feature it regularly on their menus. It's a challenge to rise to the lofty stature of Schwabl's in West Seneca or Charlie the Butcher in Cheektowaga (both of which are well worth a road trip), but many local places offer a solid interpretation. While this list is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive, it is representative. If you know of a Rochester restaurant that has a great beef on weck, leave us a comment at rochestercitynewspaper.com.
An open-grill/ice cream joint, and a Webster institution, Hank's (235 North Avenue) offers three different-sized beef on weck sandwiches: Junior (3 oz. of roast beef) for $5.19, Senior (5 oz.) for $6.19, and Bomber (8 oz.) for $8.19. As I still had one more beef on weck to eat for my research on the day I visited Hank's, I played it conservatively, sticking with the Senior, despite my affinity for the restaurant's sandwiches. Hank's approaches beef on weck a little differently than most places, first by offering four different cheeses and a dozen other topping possibilities. It also charges an additional $0.60 for au jus. As a purist, I went the traditional route: roast beef, horseradish, a side of au jus, and a side of Hank's wonderful beer-battered French fries.
Hank's doesn't serve the traditional pickle spear, but there are two types of pickle chips available at the ample condiment bar. Like most places, Hank's roasts its own beef, but they stop the process at the precise point when the meat shows the right pinkish hue. Hank's had the most flavorful and succulent beef I sampled in my research. Topped with a biting horseradish, this was a terrific convergence of flavors. Finally, Hank's differentiates themselves in one more way: the business toasts its kümmelweck rolls (which come from Di Paolo Baking) prior to filling them. This adds an extra dimension of texture and prevents the bottom half from becoming overly soggy, which can occur from dipping the sandwich in the savory au jus.
Harry G's (678 South Avenue) had the best looking beef on weck sandwich. The South Wedge restaurant serves up a soft, fresh roll from Al Cohen's Bakery in Buffalo that Harry G's evenly speckles with salt (not coarse) and caraway seeds in house (sadly, most of the caraway seeds fell off during consumption). The substantial quantity of roast beef — sourced from Thumann's in Carlstadt, New Jersey — inside was relatively rare and sumptuous, but the best part of Harry G's version was the huge tub of au jus. Rich and robust, I could've eaten it as soup with some oyster crackers (I did in fact take a few unadulterated slurps from the cup and took the leftover home), and I wished for some French fries to dip. In a step away from tradition, Harry G's spurns the pickle, and serves the sandwich with "horsey mayo," which offered some tang, but little zest. ($7.75)
Stoneyard Brewing in Brockport (1 Main Street) prides itself on the variety and quality of its sandwiches, and considering my mission, I had to avoid the temptation to sample the menu. Stoneyard roasts its own beef and procures its buns from Costanzo's Bakery in Cheektowaga, to which Stoneyard adds its own glaze and salt and caraway. I found the Costanzo's bun soft and dense in the most pleasingly chewy of ways. Stoneyard deviated from the norm a bit by offering pickle chips instead of a spear, but it didn't detract. The horseradish was heady and the au jus possessed a full-bodied depth, which proved the perfect dipping medium for the accompanying deliciously crisp French fries. ($8.95)
Rohrbach Brewing Company in Gates (3859 Buffalo Road) offered tender and well-seasoned beef, rendering the accompanying au jus somewhat irrelevant. I was pleased with the relative abundance of meat on this sandwich. Rohrbach also uses Costanzo's buns, and does an especially good job distributing the caraway seeds and salt, which much to my delight, tended to stay on the bun. A crisp pickle spear and slightly tame horseradish also occupied space on my plate. Typically served with French fries, I selected Cole slaw instead, since I'd already indulged in the RBC poutine as an appetizer. Rohrbach's offers a smothering of peppers, onions, and Swiss for an additional dollar. For those keeping score, I found Rohrbach's vanilla porter a delightful accompaniment. ($8.50)
The Genesee Brew House (25 Cataract Street) roasts its own beef, and creates its kümmelweck buns using Rochester's Petrillo's Bakery buns as the base and adding caraway seeds and salt (a common practice in our area). The Brew House's kümmelweck suffers a bit from imbalance: the caraway seeds were too few and the salt too abundant — although that was ameliorated by the fact that salt fell off the bun too easily, speaking to an inadequate glazing. The beef was lean and tender, if a bit overcooked, but a bit on the sparse side. This dish comes with the traditional au jus and pickle spear, but instead of straight-up horseradish, the Brew House uses a horseradish sauce that tends too much toward mayonnaise. Typically served with potato chips, I opted instead for a hearty German potato salad studded with smoked bacon. ($9)
Sheridan's Irish Pub in Rochester (1551 Mount Hope Avenue) sources its roast beef from Red Osier. On the sandwich the meat was heftily portioned but a bit overcooked. The accompanying horseradish came across more sour than spicy and the au jus left something to be desired — it was thin and light in flavor. Sheridan's serves its beef on weck with the standard pickle spear, which was fresh and crisp, and French fries, which leaned to the undercooked side. The kümmelweck rolls come fully assembled from Tops supermarkets. ($8.95)
Some other locals that eluded the scope of this venture that also serve beef on weck include Bunga Burger Bar, Great Harvest Bread Company (Brighton store, Thursdays only), MacGregors' Grill and Tap Room, The Yard of Ale (Piffard), The Wintonaire, and Desiato's Deli and Subs on particular days as a daily special.