It’s been more than three years since I left Chicago for New York, and I have few regrets about the move. But sometimes I’m hit with a wave of culinary nostalgia, whether it’s for the phenomenal sausages at Hot Doug’s, the tacos al pastor at Erick’s Taco’s or the top-notch beer list and mussels at the Hopleaf. Apart from Vienna beef Chicago dogs, one of the things I miss the most is Italian beef. Ostensibly invented in Chicago around the 1930s, Italian beef is thinly sliced roast beef, doused in meat juice, and served on a long roll. It traditionally comes topped with giardiniera (spicy pickled vegetables) or sweet Italian peppers. Empanada Boy and I used to live just down the street from Budacki’s Drive-In, a stand of the kind typical in Chicago, serving hot dogs, gyros, fries, meatball subs and, of course, Italian beef. At one point, EB developed something of an addiction to Budacki’s Italian beef. I would come home after going out to dinner with friends and ask him what he ate. He grin sheepishly, and I would know exactly where he had been. While I was in Yom Kippur services during the first year we lived together, EB decided to fast in solidarity. He held out until the afternoon, at which point he broke the fast—at Budacki’s. It was only appropriate that this year we designated the day after Yom Kippur for a trip out to Brennan & Carr in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, an Irish place, specializing in dipped roast beef.
My friends Tater Tot and Margarita had seen Brennan & Carr on an old episode of “Man vs. Food”. Being Midwesterners, they were intrigued at the apparent similarity of the restaurant’s specialty with Italian beef. I should say that Tater Tot was intrigued; Margarita is a very patient vegetarian. EB and I took two subways and two buses to meet them and their six-month-old baby, Half Pint, at Brennan & Carr. The restaurant is just off Avenue U, a street of vast ethnic diversity. In one telling example, a kosher deli stands directly across the street from G&S Pork Store. Brennan & Carr was established in 1938 when the area was entirely marsh land and almost entirely inhabited by Irish immigrants. I’m not sure if it’s original, but the restaurant’s exterior decor is reminiscent of a faux alpine ski chalet, complete with signs written in that old-fashioned Scandinavian-looking font. The door to the restaurant is next to a take out window, from which everything on the menu can be ordered to go. When we walked inside, the entranceway was dim. A old cash register stood by the door and cooks behind the counter assembled food beneath heat lamps. One of the servers, clad in a white butcher’s coat that looked like a lab coat, led us to a table in the better-lit wood-paneled main dining room. “I’d like a beer,” I said when our server asked us what we would have to drink. “Bud or Bud Light?” he asked. Brennan & Carr is that kind of old-school place.
Apart from its roast beef sandwich, Brennan & Carr is known for the Gargiulo burger, a roast beef sandwich with a burger patty and some cheese thrown in. While that sounded like something of a novelty, we decided to focus on the roast beef. Tater Tot, EB and I each ordered a dipped roast beef sandwich, and Margarita settled for some mozzarella sticks. Fries and onion rings rounded out a very healthy meal. The roast beef came on a round roll, already sodden with meat drippings, but still somehow spongy enough to be lifted to the mouth without disintegrating. The meat was achingly tender, and the jus brought another layer of moisture and flavor. The sandwich had no toppings. It really didn’t need them. I tried a bite with Guilden’s mustard and found the rich, silken meat was still bold enough to overshadow the condiment. The fries were decent and perhaps best used as tools to sop up the jus. Onion rings were fine, but nothing special.
Having finished our sandwiches, Tater Tot grinned and admitted to still being a bit hungry. Would someone would be willing to split another? EB uncharacteristically balked at the idea, but I was game. (Perhaps I was still making up from the previous day’s fast.) Before we ordered, I glanced over at the menu and noticed the roast beef platter. Our server informed us that this was a plate of beef, accompanied by one roll and two sides of our choosing. The three of us could surely stomach the meat, and Margarita pledged to do her part with the fries and onion rings. A pitcher of Bud was ordered to wash it all down. Roast-beef course number two proved to be a winner. The platter of meat arrived slightly pink on the edges and swimming in jus. As we ate our meat, we discussed the differences between Irish roast beef and Italian beef. Obviously, there was the matter of the roll shape and size. Italian beef is cooked to well-done and has more of a chew to it than the melt-in-your mouth Irish beef. In my opinion, the giardiniera goes a long way toward making the Italian beef as fantastic as it is, but Irish beef may be better able to stand alone. I’m not going to renounce my allegiance and devotion to the Chicago classic, but its New York cousin gives it a real run for its money.
Brennan & Carr
3432 Nostrand Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11229