Food & dining

The salty-tangy-sour-sweet-meaty Reuben

Reuben sandwich from Sam LaGrassa’s.
Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff
Reuben sandwich from Sam LaGrassa’s.

The ingredients in a Reuben sandwich — corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, Russian dressing, rye bread — are fairly simple. The magic happens when it’s toasted and the buttered bread turns golden and crisp, the cheese melts, and the meat warms. Each salty-tangy-sour-sweet-meaty mouthful is what has kept this classic at the forefront of Jewish deli fare since the early 20th century.

While the Reuben’s longevity and popularity aren’t in question, its origin is. There are two competing claims for its invention. One faction believes that a Nebraskan grocer named Reuben Kulakofsky created the sandwich as a late-night snack for his poker buddies circa 1925. From then on, the sandwich was purportedly served at Omaha’s Blackstone Hotel (the site of the poker game) and later went on to win a national sandwich competition in 1956. Others say it originated in Manhattan at Reuben’s Restaurant around 1914. In “Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food,” the author, a well-respected New York Jewish food authority, supports the sandwich’s Nebraska heritage. He writes that the New York deli’s so-called “Reuben Special,” devised by owner Arnold Reuben, was a different combo of meats and cole slaw.

Either way, how the sandwich became a beloved deli item is itself a curiosity because combining meat and cheese (dairy) is taboo in kosher establishments. Author David Sax, in his 2009 “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of the Jewish Delicatessen,” writes that the famous combination sandwich “was the sacrifice many New York delicatessens felt they needed to make to gain a foothold in the mouths of gentile America.” It wasn’t much of a sacrifice though, as the Reuben became a favorite among Jewish-Americans who don’t keep kosher.

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Besides the addictive blend of ingredients is the size of the lunchtime treat. The most generous sandwiches boast 6 ounces of meat, a large scoop of sauerkraut, enough cheese to become melted and gooey, and a slather of dressing. At Sam LaGrassa’s in the Financial District, the meat is kept warm and sliced to order. “For us, there’s one thickness that’s perfect,” says Robert LaGrassa, one of three sons working at their father’s sandwich shop. “Too thin, it’s shaved; too thick, it’s too chewy,” he says. About inch
thick is just right.

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The deli, founded in 1968, has special loaves of rye and pumpernickel made for it at a Rhode Island bakery. LaGrassa says his father, Sam, who still comes to work daily, used to say: “The bread can’t dominate the sandwich but it has to be an equal part of it.” While most Reubens are toasted on a flat-top griddle, LaGrassa’s operates 12 panini machines for pressing the sandwiches.

At Michael’s Deli in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner, owner Steven Peljovich assembles the sandwich a little differently than others do. He heats a pile of corned beef in a high-pressure steamer, then adds sauerkraut and Swiss, and melts the cheese. He places the messy mound — “Reubens aren’t supposed to be neat,” he says — on toasted pumpernickel. “I go through 300 to 400 pounds of corned beef a week and at least half is for Reubens,” he says.

The “secret sauce, so to speak” says Peljovich, is an easy-to-make mixture of mayo, ketchup, and sweet relish, which sounds a lot like Russian dressing and Thousand Island dressing (names that are used interchangeably). LaGrassa adds chopped dill pickles for “a little tartness and texture,” he says.

A classic version is also available at Johnny’s Luncheonette in Newton Centre, where the sandwich is made with either corned beef or turkey (most customers choose beef). At Zaftigs Delicatessen in Brookline and Natick, cooks slather dressing on both the top and bottom slices of pumpernickel. Moody’s Delicatessen & Provisions in Waltham doesn’t have a Reuben per se, but offers close cousins: “Dave’s corned beef with sauerkraut and Thousand Island on rye,” and The Katz, with pastrami, pickle mustard, and Swiss cheese on rye.

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Add pork to the mix and the sandwich becomes a Cuban Reuben, on the menu at Highland Kitchen in Somerville, where it is pressed with roast pork loin, corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, dill pickles, and spicy Russian dressing. “It’s my favorite thing on the menu,” says chef de cuisine Christopher O’Shea.

Cuban Reuben sandwich (top) from chef de cuisine Christopher O’Shea at Highland Kitchen in Somerville.
Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff
Cuban Reuben sandwich from chef de cuisine Christopher O’Shea at Highland Kitchen in Somerville.

Just as a croque monsieur has an offshoot called croque madame (see list at right), Reubens have spawned Rachels. A Rachel is a riff on the ol’ boy, generally a milder combo made with pastrami or turkey and cole slaw instead of sauerkraut. (Peljovich has customers at Michael’s Deli ordering Rachels made with tongue.)

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff
“It’s my favorite thing on the menu,” Christopher O’Shea says.

Perhaps the most unique Rachel in town is at Rosebud American Kitchen & Bar, where executive chef and partner John Delpha makes what he’s coined “Texas Rachel in a Skirt.” The Southwestern-style combo includes smoked brisket, sauteed onions with barbecue sauce, melted cheese, cole slaw, and “an amped-up horseradish sauce.” The “skirt” part is a clever name for the halo of crisp-chewy melted cheese surrounding the sandwich when it’s served.

To make it, cooks sprinkle a blend of shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack on and around the bread toasting on the griddle. As it melts, it forms a delectable golden crust. Delpha says the idea came from a restaurant in San Diego; his crowd-pleaser is now one of his top sellers.

At many establishments now, the classic Reuben ingredients sometimes appear without bread. A Reuben casserole is baked with layers of sliced corned beef, sauerkraut, dressing, and a topping of melted Swiss. When the ingredients are wrapped in flaky dough, it becomes a Reuben knish (see related story, Page 9). There are even Reuben egg rolls. A Reuben party dip reads like a 1950s-style recipe, calling for some or all of these: cream cheese, sour cream, ketchup, mustard, relish, and of course, chopped corned beef, and shredded cheese.

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No matter where the long-lived sandwich was born, it has endured. For that, we thank all the Reubens.

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at lisa@lisazwirn.com.