Last year, a team of judges ate 14 sandwiches on our way to declaring the best local Reuben of 2010 for Spokane. The winner – the sandwich at Madeleine’s Café and Patisserie – almost didn’t make the initial list. Who would expect a French café and bakery to even have a Reuben on the menu, let alone one that trounced the celebrated sandwiches at the Elk and Hill’s and edged out O’Doherty’s classic Hooligan and Hannigan?
The chances that Madeleine’s would pull the same upset a second year in a row seemed even more remote, yet this is exactly what happened: a culinary Cinderella story.
The Reuben is a bizarre phenomenon all around: toasted rye bread, corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing. Not a single one of these ingredients is remotely popular on its own with the possible exception of Swiss cheese.
Still, as St. Patrick’s Day approaches, even restaurants that have no idea how to make corned beef from scratch slap together a pre-fab Reuben for the special sheet.
Why? Because they sell.
No one cares now that the Reuben’s actual link to the Irish is blarney. In truth, all three competing claims for the first Reuben sandwich originate here in America.
But I don’t recommend you insist on historic accuracy too loudly with the folks draped in green – particularly if they’ve been drinking and consider the sandwich on the bar in front of them a link to the old country.
That loyal bar-stool crowd is far from alone when it comes to Reuben madness. The sloppy mystery that is the Reuben defies all attempts at profiling.
Young women who clock daily workouts in the gym are as likely to be rabid Reuben passionistas as middle-aged white guys with guts, and proof of this piled up last year after our first Reuben rating. In all my years of writing for the paper, no article has ever elicited as much response, and many of you suggested other sandwiches in town that didn’t make our list.
We decided to fix that this year by pitting last year’s top three sandwiches against nine additional ones that readers nominated as real Reuben contenders.
The earliest of the three competing origin stories for the sandwich suggests that we have been eating Reubens for nearly 100 years.
In that account, the year was 1914. The place was Arthur Reuben’s restaurant in New York City. New York Times columnist Craig Claiborne quotes Reuben’s daughter Patricia on the details:
“Late one evening a leading lady of actor Charlie Chaplin’s came into the restaurant and said, ‘Reuben, make me a sandwich. … 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 New York the coleslaw became sauerkraut. But the core Arthur Reuben combination of meat, cabbage, cheese and dressing on rye bread have remained constant.
Or, you are welcome to believe the original Reuben first appeared in Nebraska.
If you hail from Omaha you will probably give credit to a grocer named Reuben Kolakofsky. He insists he created the first sandwich for hungry poker players in the 1920s.
Down the road in Lincoln, people snort at both Kolakofsky’s and Arthur Reuben’s stories, and produce a hard copy of a 1937 menu from the Cornhusker Hotel that they say proves their city deserves the credit.
Whoever deserves the credit, the ingredients of the sandwich today leave little room for debate. Reuben orthodoxy requires:
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 most of the variations are surprisingly mild this far west regardless of how dark or light the color.
Toasting or grilling isn’t technically required but the best come out hot, with crisped top and bottom.
Corned beef – Classic Reubens use corned beef and pile it on, either sliced or shredded. Our team this year definitely preferred shredded.
A few places substitute pastrami for the corned beef, but this variation actually has a separate name. Sandwiches built around pastrami technically are called “Rachels.”
Sauerkraut – The kraut can be mild or pungent. We tended to like kraut 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 kraut 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 kraut. On less successful sandwiches, the cheese can end up missing in action entirely even if the menu suggests otherwise.
Sauce – Arthur Reuben might have made that first Reuben with Russian dressing, but today the standard is Thousand Island. Some places serve theirs on the side – possibly in an attempt to avoid soggy bread – and the best spots make their own dressing in house.
Only one of the sandwiches we tried this year, the Reuben at the Davenport, added mustard as well.
After two years and sandwiches from nearly 25 places, our rankings still only qualify as semi-scientific, but we are getting closer.
This year our four-member tasting team included a food-fixated traveling geologist, a grandmother with a food industry background, a young marketing executive and myself, as the “professional” critic.
A perfect score for a sandwich is 30 points. Five are for the overall “gestalt,” which factors in not only taste and presentation but also sides, service and the restaurant ambiance. The other 25 points are divided evenly between scores for the bread, the meat, the kraut, the cheese and the sauce.
Each judge scored each sandwich independently before the scores were combined and divided by four.
Spokane’s best Reuben
With three new judges and nine new sandwiches, the chances that the French upstart from 2010 would again take home the title struck me as remote, but Madeleine’s Café and Patisserie did it again with its house-made corned beef, kraut and dressing. Owner Deb Green only added it to the chalkboard specials a year ago, but popularity has made it a permanent fixture on the menu.
What is not yet listed even on Madeleine’s chalkboard is the vegetarian version that the kitchen will make if you ask. It offers all the same glorious goop but slaps on a fried egg rather than the beef, and is already developing as a cult classic for recovering carnivores.
O’Doherty’s Hooligan and Hannigan slipped up into second and Jimmy’Z Gastropub boxed out the Davenport’s sandwich for a spot in the top three.
The Brooklyn Deli – with possibly the most unique variation on the list – grabbed the fifth spot. There is a full breakdown in the box on this page.
More Reuben Madness
Note that in this year’s culinary “big dance” we only included the top three Reubens (of 14) from last year’s review. If you love Reubens, keep The Elk, Waddell’s, Hill’s and The Viking on your hit list as well as the O’Doherty’s in the Spokane Valley.
Logistics also kept us from pursuing Reubens that were more of a drive, but we had tips that great sandwiches are to be had at the One 14 Bar and Grill in Medical Lake, Shagnasty’s in Deer Park, Kelly’s Irish Pub in Coeur d’Alene, and Old Geezers in Sandpoint.
Two years and nearly 25 sandwiches back-to-back does provide some grounds for an educated opinion, but if a French café can take top honors two years in a row, anything is possible in the world of Reubens. So if we have yet to try your go-to sandwich or a new contender shows up, let me know.