Roast beef was Sunday dinner most weeks at the Donahue household when I was growing up. I remember my dad doling out the first succulent brown slices from the top of the roast. Delicious. We loved roast beef so much we ordered it every time we went to the old Britling Cafeteria. My mother routinely pointed out the non-red part of the roast for the server to carve.
Since then, I’ve rarely ordered roast beef sandwiches at restaurants. I usually find the meat dry and stringy or stiff as a board.
Well, tasty roast beef sandwiches can be found in Memphis, and I’m back to eating them in restaurants.
Clay Shelton came up with the Mad Earl hot Italian beef sandwich at The Mad Earl in Downtown. It’s served on sourdough bread and comes with Cajun horseradish sauce and provolone cheese. You can get giardiniera, hot pepper relish, on the side. The Mad Earl name combines the restaurant’s street name, Madison, and the “Earl of Sandwich.”
I asked Shelton, the general manager, if he’s a chef. “No. Just a food nerd,” he said.
Shelton got the basic idea for the sandwich while watching a Food Network segment on Al’s Italian Beef in Chicago. Shelton tweaked that sandwich to come up with the Mad Earl. “It’s our top-selling sandwich,” he said.
Regulars have their favorite ways of eating the Mad Earl.
Leo Alileo requests a layer of giardiniera on the sandwich. Alileo, who works across the street at Havana’s Pilon restaurant, likes the “combination of hot and mild.” He enjoys “extremely spicy food.”
Kenny Hickman is responsible for the “Skinny Kenny” on The Mad Earl’s menu. “I love the Mad Earl, and I love cheese dip,” said Hickman, who just happened to be sitting on a neighboring bar stool. So he asked to have some of the queso dip, which they use on their nachos, hot dogs and grilled cheese, added to his Mad Earl sandwich. I tried some of the queso on my sandwich and loved it. Think Philly Cheese Steak sandwich at the Mid-South Fair.
Finally, Michael McCall, a cook and bartender at the restaurant, likes to the wrap the Mad Earl ingredients into a flour tortilla along with romaine lettuce and, he said, “a few jalapeños.”
The roast beef sandwich at Elwood’s Shack is served on a kaiser roll with mayonnaise, deli mustard, green leaf lettuce, vine-ripened tomatoes and, my favorite, creamy horseradish. They use top round Angus beef, said co-owner Tim Bednarski. His sandwich is popular, he said, because of the “quality of the ingredients.”
The New Orleans roast beef debris at Belle Diner is another one to try. “Debris,” actually, is pieces from just-cut roasted beef that fall into the gravy, said David Johnson, the restaurant’s chef and one of the owners. Johnson uses the whole beef top round for his sandwiches, which he describes as “hearty.”
He inserts peeled garlic cloves into slits he cuts in the meat before cooking: “like people do in a leg of lamb.” He then sears the beef on a flat top, puts it in a big pot and covers it with veal stock, which is made in house, adds salt and pepper and braises it for three hours. “When it comes out, it all pulls apart.” It’s served on a yeast baguette “made fresh in the morning.”
The provolone cheese is a Belle Diner adaptation of the New Orleans debris sandwich. “In New Orleans, it doesn’t have cheese on it,” Johnson said. They originally didn’t serve it with cheese, he said. “Customers were telling us, ‘It needs to come with the cheese.’”
The Mad Earl is at 150 Madison; 901-249-2135.
Elwood’s Shack is at 4523 Summer; 901- 761-9898.
Belle Diner is at 117 Union; 901-433-9851.