A Meaty Issue
Back in early November I wrote that Victor's Delicatessen makes the best Reuben sandwich in town. A strong statement, I admit, but a heartfelt one. Perhaps my dotage has made me complacent. Last year I came away relatively unscathed after pronouncing the best pizza in town. So far there has been nary a peep of protest over the "best BLT" I humbly nominated last month. But the best Reuben? Apparently them's fightin' words.
My first and most vociferous correspondent was Mike Kahn of Kahn's Delicatessen in the Village. Now there's a surprise. After all, Mike's the guy who lectured David Letterman on Reuben sandwiches.
Don't get me wrong: I too can spell "delicatessen" without a dictionary, and I love going to Kahn's. Mike has been in that narrow slot on Rice Boulevard for 16 years, almost as long as his fusty neighbor, the Village Five and Dime, and for many of the same reasons: Baby boomer nostalgia, that silly yearning for an imaginary kinder, gentler time, yadda yadda yadda plus the added visceral thrill of stalking a parking space in the jammed-up-with-Volvos Village.
If it's classic neighborhood deli atmosphere you want, Kahn's cramped storefront is the best place in Houston to get it, from the fading movie posters propped up in the front windows to the soda fountain bar stools to the rickety red and white card tables in the back corner. From the doorway you can smell all the good deli scents, strong mustard, garlic, kosher dill pickles. Last time I dropped by, one customer was wearing Rollerblades. A West U mom negotiated baby-sitting rates with one of the counter girls, a blond youth with the sort of sunny, open expression that beams "trust me with your kids." It's a communal food haven that makes me happy just to walk in the door.
Compared to Kahn's, Victor's place on Braeswood has all the charm of a tollbooth. But if it's the best Reuben sandwich you want, it's at Victor's.
Hear me out. In my deeply personal opinion, the making of a great deli sandwich rests on two things: its bread and its meat. I prefer the denser, chewy sourdough rye bread that Victor's slices thickly to the lighter-textured, family-recipe rye, thinly sliced at Kahn's. ("Well, he's getting his rye bread from Three Brothers," sniffs Mike. "If you like that sort of thing, and I don't. We prefer to make our own.") Both deli-preneurs buy their corned beef from Chicago, but Victor's thicker slices are more strongly flavored. At Kahn's, I like the tart sauerkraut, the pale pink Russian dressing properly pungent with horseradish -- though it does tend to leach into the overly porous bread -- and the nicely melted Swiss cheese; but unless you stop him, Mike will also decorate your sandwich with Vermont cheddar cheese and bright yellow mustard. That is not fit treatment for a Reuben sandwich.
"Well, to each their own," says Mike, with admirable restraint.
Mike's may be the biggest Reuben in town, I'll readily grant him that. His standard prep is a handsome half-pound of meat ($6.99), and the sandwich hefts like five pounds in the hand. It's so large, it's distressing, dripping messily out from between those thin slices of rye bread. It's worse if you're dining at a sidewalk table out front: People stop to stare, and I mean literally every passerby. "Let's get a sandwich," they say to one another, jostling for a closer peek. "Ooh, doesn't that one look good?" All you can say is, "Mmph-mmph," cheeks bulging, nodding like an idiot. Clever Mike, to turn his happily chewing customers into living billboards.
There are other things I think Mike makes exceptionally well. I like his inventive array of retrofitted Reubens, especially the two known as the New Yorker ($5.75) and the Texan ($5.50). The New Yorker is made with corned beef, the Texan with roast beef; both are topped with cole slaw and Russian dressing, served on rye. I like Mike's cole slaw because it's slightly sweet and very light, almost fluffy, and I love it in sandwiches instead of on boring old lettuce leaves. Likewise, the creamy, ivory-colored potato salad leans to the sugary side of traditional. Either you like that style or you don't, and I do.
And I appreciate the freeform construction options. This is an interactive sandwich smorgasbord, and Mike will make anything you want. You don't have to get the homemade rye; you could get French bread or onion bread or a kaiser roll or a bagel. The sturdier, the better. The other day, for example, Mike made me a picture-perfect roast beef sandwich trimmed with Swiss cheese and ripe tomatoes on a baguette ($4.75). Mike's roast beef is lovely, nicely trimmed, thoroughly tender and still rare in the center of the cut. He follows instructions to the letter, which means that if you don't ask, you don't get; not even a dab of mayonnaise is taken for granted. Mike made a mayo-less ham and cheese sandwich for my husband, who found it boring.
"That's your own fault!" I told my husband in the shrill tones of a sitcom wife. "You ordered a boring sandwich, and that's exactly what you got." We rode home in silence.
There are so many different sandwich options that it pays to study the paper take-out menu at length before visiting. There are standard deli sandwiches and plates, of course, and the modified classics, and then there are a couple of "off the menu" choices named for local celebrities. I wouldn't, but you might take a bite out of a "Don Kobos" ($4.99), an all-beef hot dog on an egg roll with mustard and sauerkraut, or chow down on an "Olajuwon Special" ($7.99), another Reuben-esque concoction that combines corned beef and grilled knockwurst. It's difficult to stand on tippy-toe to see the chalkboard menu, read all the entries, then make up your mind, all the while conscious of the eager, hungry customers lining up behind you.
Once the order's in, though, there's plenty of time to pick out a bag of chips and choose a soft drink from the reach-in cooler. Then you can watch your sandwich go through the miniature pizza oven, riding on a cunning little conveyor belt. (This means that Kahn's Reuben is sort of broiled, while Victor's is more traditionally grilled; God help me, but I do love the greasy feel of a butter-griddled sandwich.) The Reuben gets a free ride through the meltdown machine at Kahn's; the application of heat is 50 cents extra for other sandwiches, so be sure to watch closely to get your full entertainment dollar's worth.
The last ritual step at Kahn's is to check under the sneeze guard to the left of the cash register for various sweets, both handcrafted and prepackaged. I've become fond of the wonderfully named Australian candy bars Kahn's carries, the Violet Crumbles (75 cents). But I must admit I'm baffled by the homemade "killer" brownies (99 cents). Made with potent Mexican vanilla that Mike imports himself, they smell and look wonderful, glossy and crackle-crusted on top. Underneath, though, they're as soft and squishy as a handful of fudge icing; I mean grab-a-spoon, spreadably soft. At first I thought the pieces had been wrapped mistakenly while still warm and had sweated themselves into that state. Nope, Mike says, they're meant to be that way. Great taste, no doubt they'd make killer ice cream topping, but if they're brownies, I still don't get it.
It's so much more fun to eat in the store, I think, when you're feeling sociable. Everybody chats at Kahn's, about sales and sitters and sealing wax. If you're feeling particularly on top of your game, try matching wits with Mike across the counter. (Otherwise, don't even think about it.) On days you need a little more personal space, phone in and grab a take-out order. Which brings me to another quibble with Kahn's: Plastic bags would make better conveyers of cold, dripping-wet kosher dill pickles than tissue-thin deli paper does. Styrofoam -- or all right already, cardboard -- go-boxes would keep quarter-pound sandwiches corralled and warmer longer. And for Pete's sake, plastic credit cards are a far better way to pay for meals. Sometimes they're the only way: On one visit I was so cash-challenged I barely made my tab with pennies and pocket lint.
But in a town woefully short on tradition and local heroes, would I really change anything about Kahn's? Probably not.
Kahn's Delicatessen, 2429 Rice Boulevard, (713)529-2891.
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