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A 'Reuben-esque' quest

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Some people search a good part of their lives for a heavenly wine, an elusive truffle, a cassoulet that they once found by accident years ago in France, or the first time they enter a restaurant they may insist on trying the filet.

Me? I'll always look for the ultimate Reuben sandwich. I can't remember exactly where I first had a Reuben, though I'm guessing it might have been at someplace such as What's Cooking, on Lincoln, or Sally's, on Harlem and Higgins, both places that my parents and I would go to with some regularity when I was a kid. What I do know for sure is that it was love at first bite. Wherever it was, the combination of ingredients overwhelmed me -- the toasted rye bread, the warm corned beef, crunchy sauerkraut, melted Swiss cheese, and a layer of Thousand Island dressing, dripping over the edges. The thing I must have liked the most, besides the combination of tastes, was the fact that while the Reuben is called a "sandwich," there is so much going on inside those two slices of rye that it's a meal. Combine it with a bit of chopped liver on the side and maybe a bowl of kreplach soup, and well, if I had to die at a restaurant table, this would not be such a bad way to go.

Over my past few decades, then, I have looked for a Reuben that lived up to my first impressions of the sandwich and I've judged any place that dares call itself a deli or diner on how it makes a Reuben (yes, my Jewish friends, I know that this sandwich is remarkably non-Kosher, and I'd like to find out just how it was born and if there were any religious/dietary conflicts along the way, especially in the kitchens of ostensibly Jewish restaurants).

What I do know about the history of the Reuben is that there are a couple claims to its origin. One says that Reuben Kulakofsky, a grocer from Omaha, Nebraska (!) came up with it sometime in the 1920s, and the other says that Arnold Reuben, owner of Reuben's Delicatessen in New York, put together the first Reuben, around 1915.

I'll be sharing the results of my search for that ultimate Reuben here. I'll have my mental checklist of the required ingredients, how good the beef is and how the bread holds up, as well as the overall taste and just the impression, if I detect it, as to whether whomever put it together knows what a good Reuben is. I intend to check out the places you'd think you could get a good sandwich at, and I hope to uncover some surprises, as well. There won't be a trophy or prize to the best Reubens, other than the appreciation of someone who really enjoys a good one. I welcome your recommendations and impressions, too.

Two great pieces worth a listen on WBEZ today (91.5 FM). The first, by WBEZ's Dave Hammond, on the disappearing Jewish deli, a topic covered in our Food pages by reporter Mike Thomas, who never met a pastrami sandwich he didn't like.

The second, on the grand rebirth of Delicatessen Meyer in Lincoln Square. We first reported on the closing of Deli Meyer in March 2007. Several months after that, we met the dynamic sister-brother duo, Yolanda and Derek Luszcz, whose family owns Gene's Sausage Shop, at the boarded up Meyer site.

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They had big plans for the deli back then, and it's heartening to see now they weren't just pipe dreams. Whetting our appetite: the butter from a Wisconsin dairy "that they portion out to customers by hand," WBEZ reports.

Gene's Sausage Shop at Deli Meyer -- the Web site is a work-in-progress, as we imagine the Luszczes are quite busy (though, naturally, there is a Facebook page) -- is at 4750 N. Lincoln.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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