Buffalo’s Sandwich: Beef on Weck
American regional cuisine has many hidden gems – little dishes, sandwiches or sides that are popular in a region and yet seem nonexistent outside of that small radius. Discovering these specialties and diving deeper into why they are so popular and what makes them unique has always been one of the more exciting parts of my work. On my last trip to Buffalo, New York, I started to explore what that part of the country had to offer. Buffalo is the birthplace of the Buffalo wings, but it is also the home to beef on weck. The first thought to cross my mind was, what is beef on weck? For that matter, what the heck is weck?
Beef on weck is a roast beef sandwich offered at almost any bar or restaurant in the Buffalo area, yet unexplainably it almost ceases to exist 60 miles outside of the city center. The sandwich is so popular locally that Bills fans would be surprised to learn that it is not available everywhere.
The story is a little fuzzy, but many seem to agree with a general tale. At the turn of the century, a local unnamed baker from the Black Forest region of Germany created a traditional caraway bread called Kummelweck from his German home. He made slight modifications to the roll to give it more Americanized characteristics, such as a softer texture. During this time he worked for a small tavern called the Delaware house. In 1901 the Pan American Exposition was held in Buffalo close to the tavern. The owner of the Delaware house, Joe Gohn, used the roll to make roast beef sandwiches to feed the hungry crowds that formed, where it became an instant success, and the rest is history.
BEEF ON WECK COMPONENTS
- Beef: Top round, slowly roasted to rare. It doesn’t have to be cooked in an oven or grill, but none of the ones I sampled had any trace of smoke flavor. It was a clean, juicy, tender thin hand slice of beef, seasoned very lightly. The beef can be dipped back into an au jus for more flavor or to cook a little longer, if desired. The beef is often sliced out in the open for customers to see.
- Kummelweck roll: The soft, light rye roll with coarse sea salt and caraway seeds on top give the sandwich its distinctive characteristics. “Kummel” is German for caraway, and “weck” for roll. The long name, which is cumbersome, has been shortened to “Weck”. The salt is a vital part to this sandwich as it delivers a lot of the seasoning in place of salting the beef itself. The top of the bun is normally dipped in the au jus as they build the sandwich.
- Au jus: The beef and top of the roll are dipped in the beef drippings prior to building the sandwich, adding moisture.
- Horseradish: Another vital ingredient! Every place I visited had this out on the table specifically for this sandwich. The horseradish was always fresh ground, pungent, delicious and never blended with anything else. You could tell who the regulars were by how much they put on – for many it is a matter of pride.
For some unknown reason, this sandwich has never broken the 60-mile radius with any degree of success. There are many other types of roast beef sandwiches out there, many very similar, but the missing factor in all of them is the weck. This roll is the most unique part and defining characteristic of this sandwich, a German-influenced specialty. Western New York had a tremendous number of German immigrants in the late 1800’s, and you can almost feel the heavy western European influence in the region. My theory is that the roll, being a modified German rye, kaiser, caraway and salt roll, is a little more work to make. So once you travel outside of the German influence, people used other rolls available to them from different local, ethnic bakers, thus changing a beef on weck to a standard roast beef sandwich.
Variations of Beef on Weck
Traditional Sandwich: I found this version at almost every location I went in to in some form or another. But the notable locations were:
- Charlie the Butcher
Interpretations: Different takes on the classic sandwich that I found in Buffalo include:
- Beef on weck pierogi – Ru’s Pierogi – chipped beef wrapped in a pocket of dough with salt and caraway seeds, deep fried and served with a horseradish sauce
- Beef on weck burger – Allen Burger Venture – A half-pound ground beef patty topped with horseradish sauce on a kummelweck bun
Beef on weck is a true regional treasure – simple in nature and ingredients, but incredibly well-balanced and delicious. The beef is rare, the horseradish is always fresh, the rolls are semi-soft with salt and caraway seeds, and the au jus is always made from the beef drippings. This may be the best unknown beef sandwich in America.