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Reubenesque, Round 2

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When I announced that I was on a quest to find the best reuben sandwiches around, I got a few suggestions of places to try, but none as unusual as that which came from my friend Dave Awl.

He suggested something called "The Radical Reuben," from the Chicago Diner, at Halsted and Roscoe. Why is this reuben sandwich so "radical"? Well, it's because the sandwich is made without what many would call a key ingredient of the reuben, corned beef. They do it this way there because the Chicago Diner is a non-meat serving eatery.

I was the epitome of skepticism when I got Dave's suggestion -- my grin upside down, my eyes rolled, the whole bit -- but I decided what the heck, I like disaster movies, so it could be fun to try what was certain to be a disaster of a sandwich. It could make good copy.

Well, I was shocked, but not by how bad this reuben was. In short, I've got to say that meat or not, it is one of the best reubens I've ever had -- maybe among the top two or three at this point.

The bread on this sandwich is marbled rye, as it should be, and on it are onions, peppers, sauerkraut, non-dairy "cheese," vegan Thousand Island dressing and the "meat" is seitan. Additionally, the Chicago Diner, though they don't serve meat, is still a Chicago place, so they don't skimp on anything, not to mention the "meat-like" product. The seitan is cooked as well as it could be and there's not much difference in taste between it and corned beef (of course there is no beef fat to deal with, which is also a nice touch). It's a hearty sandwich that tastes great. If you can get past the idea, especially in a town once known as "hog butcher to the world," of eating a vegetarian reuben, you're in for quite a surprising treat. I definitely will be back for this reuben again.

Also, the Chicago Diner, in a "Reubens for Wildlife" campaign, is donating $1 from every one of these reubens sold through August 31 to Gulf Coast wildlife rescue organizations. Could this sandwich get anymore animal-friendly?

Reuben Rumble, Round I

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For my first formal foray into the search for a satisfying reuben sandwich, I didn't venture far from the Sun-Times River North offices. Just down the block from the Sun-Times is Steve's Deli Chicago, on Hubbard Street, between Orleans and Kingsbury. This is one of two Steve's Delis, the other in its native Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Steve's is a clean, bright, sun-filled (when the sun is out) spot when you can dine in or get carry out from. The menu is pretty extensive, and all the stuff that you look for in a real deli -- knishes, kugel, kreplach, latkes, blintzes, lox and gefilte fish -- are there. But what I went there for was the reuben.

At $10, you think, this sandwich had better be good, and I can't say it's not. I realize that $10 isn't that much for a good deli sandwich -- but if you have any skepticism about the deal, you won't feel a whole lot better when the sandwich arrives, with a couple pickle slices, but that's it. You want fries? That's $3.79 extra. Want a latke? $3.29. Cole slaw? $2.79. No, I did not order the cole slaw, but has anyone ever had a side of slaw that was worth paying for, let alone $2.79? I did order a latke, which looked as disappointing when it arrived at the table as the sandwich did. There was little texture to it, no nooks and crannies, just a sort of uniform, not quite distinctive-looking latke. The taste was OK, but I really like a latke that has character, which this one did not.

But on to the sandwich. Despite looking rather ordinary at first, Steve's reuben was a solid hit on all counts. You can get "extra lean" corned beef for a dollar more, but I cannot see how that could be any leaner than the regular beef in this sandwich. The beef was sliced extra thin, like I like it, it was warm and there were layers upon layers of it inside the sandwich, which, though it was packed with melted Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing, stayed together and did not fall apart in my hands as I ate it. (Of course, I began by opening up the sandwich and peeling away a few layers of the beef to eat by fork before grabbing the sandwich with my hands, which may have made it more manageable.)

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.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

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

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