Few sandwiches inspire passionate opinions like the Reuben.
People love them; people hate them. Yet if you tally up how many appear on menus around Spokane, you are forced to admit that there must be a great multitude in our midst that are deeply in love with these massive and often goopy sandwiches that pack corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing between slices of toasted or grilled rye bread.
Other sandwiches certainly represent much safer menu choices: sandwiches like chicken clubs, French dips, or BLTs. Yet for some reason none of these more mainstream choices capture our collective imagination quite like Reuben, this New York deli classic.
Almost inexplicably, it enjoys year-round favor rather than just a week or two of glory leading up to St. Paddy’s Day. Also striking is the range of restaurants with a Reuben on their menu: you can order a Reuben in the drive-through lane at Arby’s or get one delivered to your candlelit table at the Davenport’s Palm Court.
And these two facts alone suggest that the Reuben has become more than just a curious sandwich guaranteed to break any diet; it truly is a wonderful and bizarre culinary phenomenon.
As a phenomenon, the Reuben could soon celebrate its 100th birthday. Three separate groups claim credit for the creation of the sandwich.
If you hail from Omaha, Neb., you will probably give credit to a grocer named Reuben Kolakofsky who is said to have first built the sandwich for hungry poker players in the 1920s.
Nebraska residents just a little south in Lincoln say their northern neighbors are just blowing smoke and the Cornhusker Hotel in their city deserves the credit. To support their claims, they have produced a Cornhusker menu from 1937 listing the sandwich complete with the proper ingredients.
Yet I lean toward the third and earliest origin story. The year was 1914. The place was a restaurant in New York owned by one Arthur Reuben. Reuben’s daughter, Patricia Taylor, described their family’s account of the creation of the Reuben to Craig Claiborne, and he recorded her account in the New York Times Food Encyclopedia:
“Late one evening a leading lady of (actor) Charlie Chaplin’s came into the restaurant and said, ‘Reuben, make me a sandwich, make it a combination, I’m so hungry I could eat a brick.’
“He took a loaf of rye bread, cut two slices on the bias and stacked one piece with sliced Virginia ham, roast turkey, and imported Swiss cheese, topped off with coleslaw and lots of Reuben’s special Russian dressing and a second slice of bread …
“He served it to the lady who said, ‘Gee, Reuben, this is the best sandwich I ever ate, you ought to call it an Annette Seelos Special.’ To which he replied, ‘Like hell I will, I’ll call it a Reuben’s Special.’ ”
Over the years the ham and turkey turned into corned beef, and outside of New York, the coleslaw became sauerkraut, but the core Reuben combination of meat, cabbage, cheese and dressing on rye bread have remained constant.
It is worth noting that though the sandwich now has strong Irish associations, these seem to have developed over time and are most likely a result of the corned beef becoming the centerpiece of the sandwich.
If you know what makes for a perfect Reuben sandwich, skip ahead to the results of our tastings. But if you want a refresher course on the key components, here they are:
Rye Bread – This can be dark rye, light rye or marbled. It can contain caraway seeds or not. Almost always it is sliced thick, and all the variations we tried were surprisingly mild regardless of how dark or light their color. Toasting or grilling isn’t technically required but every one of our favorites came out hot with crisped top and bottom.
Beef – Classic Reubens use corned beef and pile it on either sliced or shredded. A few places substitute pastrami for the corned beef, but this variation technically is called a “Rachel,” though you might not want to argue this next time you stop in at Hill’s Restaurant and Lounge. They have one of the most popular “Reubens” in town and it comes with pastrami.
Sauerkraut – The sauerkraut used can be mild or pungent. We tended to like sauerkraut that had been rinsed and then spent enough time on the grill with the corned beef that it didn’t turn the bottom slice of rye into mush. Bitter sauerkraut results in a sandwich disaster, but beyond this it is a matter of taste.
Cheese – The cheese you get on a Reuben should be Swiss, and on the best sandwiches, you get enough to taste the cheese, along with the corned beef and sauerkraut. On less successful sandwiches, what little cheese there is appears to be used only as half-hearted glue to keep things together.
Sauce – Arthur Reuben might have made that first Reuben with Russian dressing, but every sandwich we tried used a sauce that is much more like what most people typically associate with Thousand Island dressing. A majority of the restaurants we visited make their own sauce rather than resort to something in a bottle, and several of the sauces were quite sweet.
Two of the 14 places where we ate, the Davenport Hotel and the Viking Tavern, include mustard as well as sauce, and Waddell’s Pub and Grille on the South Hill adds caramelized onions as well as sauerkraut.
A Reuben ‘run’
The idea for a semi-scientific study to determine the best Reuben in town started to form several years ago, but it was St. Patrick’s Day this year that pushed me into action.
I assembled a crack team of tasters: a football coach, a trial lawyer, a mom and myself as the “professional” critic. Then I began to collect a hit list of the places known for their Reubens.
The result was a list long enough to produce corned beef shock or multiple negative coronary events.
If you had a year, you might manage to eat all the Reubens locally without ending up in the emergency room, but since we wanted to eat every sandwich on our final list in three days, choices had to be made. We focused just on Spokane and Spokane Valley and cut the list to 14 places widely known for their Reubens.
A process also needed to be determined, and 30 points came to represent the perfect sandwich. For the purposes of judging, we divided up these points as follows: five for the overall “gestalt,” which could include taste, presentation, sides and restaurant ambiance; five for the bread; five for the meat; five for the sauerkraut; five for the cheese; and five for the sauce.
Each judge rated each place separately. These four scores were then totaled and divided by four to determine each Reuben rating.
Spokane’s best Reuben
Considering the Reuben’s strong association with Irish food, it might come as a shock, but our choice for Spokane’s best Reuben is the sandwich at Madeleine’s Café and Patisserie.
It is also the newest Reuben out there. Owner Deb Green put it on the menu as a special leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, but it has been so popular that it is still up on the chalk board at $9.50.
Yet if Madeleine’s pulled a sandwich upset, it is far from being the only great Reuben in town. The Davenport also served up a surprise and barely beat out the pub crowd of favorites.
Only the beginning?
We suspect that we missed several other sandwiches that would have rated quite well. If you know of one and would care to get in on the list for a future sandwich smackdown, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.