284 Washington Street, Brookline MA 02445 (map); 617-505-1844
If you want world-class lobster rolls, perfect steamers, impeccable fresh-shucked oysters, or an enclave of the best Sichuan restaurants on the east coast, Boston is your town. But unlike, say, New York with its Reuben, Philly with its cheesesteak, or Chicago with its Italian Beef, Boston doesn't have a signature sandwich. Until now, that is.
Sure, we've had the Parish Cafe on Boylston Street where you can have your choice of a dozen fancy-pants chef-inspired 'wiches that look great on paper, but are mostly amateurish in preparation. And then there's the All-Star Sandwich Bar in Inman Square that serves monster sandwiches, but is hit or miss at best.
But when I first heard that Charles Kelsey and his wife Rachel Toomey—both Cook's Illustrated alums—were going to turn the obsessive, perfection-bent mindset of the magazine into producing the best sandwiches, I knew that something serious was going to happen: Boston would finally get a world-class sandwich joint.
Having now tasted the bulk of the menu—which in addition to sandwiches offers salads, sweets, and some light breakfast fare—I'm happy to report that they've delivered, and some.
Those of you used to seeing the Brookline location in its past incarnation as the Coca-Cola furniture studded second-rate burger spot Franky N' the Boys will be pleasantly surprised by the new wood floors, stainless steel display cases, and simple, functional furniture. When I walked in on Monday, Charles was in the back hand-stretching the made-in-house mozzarella while Rachel was manning the register and chatting up the customers—a mix of young professionals, kid-toting moms, and policemen.
As Charles shifted over to slicing Niman Ranch ham, he commented, "I taste this stuff as I'm slicing it, and I'm like, when I put it in a sandwich, these customers have no idea how good this is. It's almost to the point where I feel bad even putting it in. I should just serve it with no bread, it's that good." His respect for the ingredients show—the ham sandwich gets nothing more than a slathering of butter and Dijon mustard and a few sliced cornichon pickles, letting the excellent ham sing for itself.
Behind the sandwich counter, sous chef Erwin Chuck was busy spreading olive-carrot salad on a split baguette (excellent, from Iggy's) for the joint's take on the Spuckie sandwich—a South Boston original similar to the muffuletta of New Orleans. "It took me a while to get the meat right for this one," says Charles. He finally settled on a blend of imported finocchiona (a fennel-scented salami), mortadella, and hot capicola, along with his hand-stretched mozz. Like the muffuletta, it's the perfectly balanced olive salad that makes the sandwich as it soaks into the bread.
While the Spuckie (and its vegetarian counterpart, the Eggplant Spuckie) occupy the most prominent spot on the menu, it's the Roast Beef Sandwich that really gets people going, driving half of their sales. "I should have called this place Cutty's Roast Beef," jokes Charles. "I never stop roasting beef."
That it's so popular is no surprise. Kelsey starts the process by giving a whole beef chuck roll an overnight dry cure with salt and pepper. He then slow-roasts it in a low oven until it reaches a perfect rosy hue from edge to center. The ultra-thin sliced beef is piled high on a black pepper bun from Iggy's and topped with cheddar cheese and horseradish-spiked Thousand Island. The kicker is a handful of sweet, oniony, crispy-fried shallots, which elevate the sandwich to modern-classic status.
Since 1951, when Kelly's opened its doors on Revere Beach, roast beef has been in the running as Boston's signature sandwich. Cutty's has now confirmed it. Ironically, Kelly's is in the process of opening a new branch in Coolidge Corner, just a few blocks away. Charles welcomes the competition: "I think it's gonna be awesome. A roast beef battle between the old school and the new guys."
If you need a judge for the Kelly's vs. Cutty's taste-off, I am hereby offering my services.
In addition to its sandwiches, Cutty's offers some pretty interesting salads and a few simple yet perfectly-executed desserts, along with excellent coffee, tea, and homemade limeade. And the house-made potato chips are some of the best I've ever tasted. Unlike many small batch or kettle-style chips which I find too tough, these are light, airy, and crisp, yet still manage to pack in plenty of robust potato flavor.
If there's one complaint that could be made, it's portion size. The baguette and ciabatta-based sandwiches are barely six-inches long, and relatively thin (aside from the generous roast beef and roast pork). When working with such high quality, flavorful ingredients, it comes with the territory—any more meat in these 'wiches would simply be overwhelming. If a big fat gutbuster is what you're after, you're better off going to any number of nearby spots. Personally, It's a trade off I'm perfectly happy with. And judging by its popularity so far, most people tend to agree.
As an erstwhile Bostonian, I'd like to send a heartfelt thanks to Charles for finally upping Boston's sandwich game. Now if only someone'd figure out how to make a decent pizza up there...
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.