The Reuben turns 100 this year, and the melty sandwich is as much of a melting pot as the city it was born in — New York.
Bringing together Irish corned beef, Jewish rye or kaiser buns, German sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing, the sandwich was created in 1914 at Manhattan’s now-defunct Reuben’s Delicatessen, according to legend.
“There’s lots of evidence that the sandwich was invented by Arnold Reuben,” says Francine Segan, a food historian and cookbook author who dismisses claims that the sandwich was instead invented in Omaha. “There’s an urban legend that an out-of-work actress ordered something and the owner created it for her. What’s more iconic New York than an out-of-work actress stopping in to order a sandwich?”
What constitutes a proper Reuben is contested. Some are advocates of a toasted bread approach, while others insist the sandwich is best griddled.
“A griddled Reuben is magical,” says Jeff Mauro, the Food Network’s “Sandwich King.” “It’s got that crunchy exterior and a gooey soft middle with the melted cheese.”
The sandwich even got Mauro to eat sauerkraut as a child — not exactly a kid-friendly food.
“If you would have given me a warm bowl of sauerkraut I would have been so appalled,” Mauro says. “But covering it in dressing and putting it in that sandwich was A-OK.”
The Reuben at Katz’s Delicatessen isn’t griddled, or even toasted, but it ranks as Mauro’s favorite in New York.
“It is hand carved, perfectly fatty and salty,” says Mauro. “They do it better than anyone.”
Katz’s is known for their Reuben, but for many years it wasn’t on the menu, says Jake Dell, a fifth generation owner at the famous deli.
“It’s not really a deli sandwich,” explains Dell, because mixing cheese and meat on one dish wouldn’t be kosher .
But over the years, people kept requesting the sandwich, and since they had all the ingredients, they’d make it as an off-menu item. Eventually popular demand convinced them to put it on the menu, though Dell and his father give different accounts about whether that happened in the 1970s or ’90s.
“When you’ve been open 126 years, your sense of time is strange,” Dell laughs.
Besides corned beef, Katz’s also sells pastrami and turkey versions of the Reuben, as well as Reuben mail-order kits the deli ships across the country.
While Katz’s sells a classic Reuben, new takes on the sandwich can be found throughout the city. At the just-reopened David Burke at Bloomingdale’s, executive chef Jose Lavariega makes a version ($19) using Burke’s trademark Pastrami Salmon.
Right now, it’s made with apple coleslaw for fall, as well as saurkraut, and is served on marble rye.
We have a lot of female clientele, and they are attracted to it because it’s light,” says Lavariega. “You get a lot of the same flavor profile you would with meat, but with the twist.”
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