When you order a Reuben sandwich, you're telling the rest of the world (or at least anyone within 20 feet of you for the rest of the day) that they, too, will be having a Reuben. It's a strong move. I once ordered a Reuben at the legendary Brent's Deli in Northridge, California, but couldn't finish in time for the matinee showing of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone at the theater down the street. So I got the remainder to go and snuck it in. During one of the seventeen Quidditch matches, I took a bathroom break and, upon my return, the entire theater smelled like corned beef. Insensitive? Probably. Then again, it was a second-run theater, there was only one other person in the audience, and corned beef was an upgrade in the aroma department.
The Reuben sandwich, a staple of Jewish delicatessens, was invented in the early 1900s, either in Omaha or New York City. I know what you're thinking. They had Jewish people in Omaha? Although its origin story may be an enigma smothered with secret sauce, today everyone knows what a Reuben sandwich is: hot corned beef, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on rye bread. Somehow, at many establishments, the Reuben has morphed into a six-inch-high monstrosity overflowing with cheese and meat, all but impossible to finish in a single sitting unless your name is Paul Bunyan. How did this become a selling point? A Reuben needs to be eaten right away or not at all. Wait even ten minutes, and the bread is soggy from absorbing the dressing and sauerkraut, the cheese congeals into a fatty glob, and the once-steaming meat is lukewarm. I learned this the hard way.
To the judging!
Spec's: Reuben-to-die-for ($6.99, comes with two small pickles) Spec's is no one's idea of a Jewish deli, but damn if they don't deliver the mail. Their Reuben is a half-pound of thin-sliced Angus corned beef, warmed and folded around a middle layer of sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese, then topped with a another layer of sauerkraut, dressing, and cheese, and served on dark pumpernickel. Every bite contains the elemental flavors of the Reuben: the saltiness of the corned beef, the tang of the sauerkraut, the sweetness of the dressing, the smoothness of the cheese, and the sharpness of the caraway-studded bread.
There's nothing subtle about a Reuben, but it's also the sort of dish where more is not more. Many a Reuben has been ruined by getting the proportions wrong, usually by adding too much cheese. Spec's effort is a marvel of balance. As much as is possible with a Reuben, after you finish you feel neither queasy nor remorseful.
Spec's Reuben is also available in a "baby" size for $4.99, with a mere quarter pound of meat (and on rye bread). But when I asked about it, the counterwoman shook her head sadly and put her thumb and index finger a mere inch apart. "Not enough meat," she declared. "Don't do it."
Branch Water Tavern: Rueben [sic] ($9, with your choice of onion rings, fries or salad, and two sliced pickle rounds)
Last year, Katharine Shilcutt wrote in loving detail about Branch Watern Tavern's in-house charcuterie program. Happily, executive chef/owner David Grossman's program also extends to the pastrami used in the Reuben sandwich. But what makes the sandwich great is also its downfall: the aromatic, peppery pastrami is so flavorful that it overwhelms everything else. I could see a thin layer of cabbage (between coleslaw and sauerkraut), a smear of Russian dressing, and a dollop of melted Gruyère, but I couldn't taste any of them. And with each successive bite, the mouthfeel and flavor of pastrami became ever more dominant.
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Oh, I ate the whole thing, with gusto, but it wasn't much of a Reuben. Reubenesque, perhaps. In addition to the substitution of pastrami, the thing was served on a baguette. A baguette! Maybe the menu's identification of the sandwich as a "rueben" wasn't a misspelling after all.
The Winner: Spec's. What Branch Water Tavern serves is an excellent pastrami sandwich.