Few sandwiches have as many origin stories as the Reuben.
Some say that the hot sandwich, which squeezes layers of salt-cured corned beef, sauerkraut and a swipe of Russian dressing between slices of rye, was invented by a grocer named Reuben Kulakofsky in Omaha, Neb. Others insist the Reuben was created by Arnold Reuben, founder of the defunct Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen in New York City.
Corned beef gets its name from the rock salt — also known as “corns” of salt — used in the curing process. It’s typically made from tough cuts like brisket or eye of round that become tender with low-and-slow cooking.
Here in Kansas City, delis don’t claim to have invented the Reuben — but many will tell you they’ve perfected it. Recently, I went in search of the area’s best Reubens and discovered that the sandwich had even more variations than origin stories.
At Breit’s Stein and Deli, 412 N. Fifth St. in Kansas City, Kan., the signature Reuben is seared slowly on a panini press until the marble rye is crispy-golden on the outside and the Swiss inside is molten.
At $4.50 — a price that includes chips, potato salad or macaroni salad — Breit’s grilled cheese-style Reuben sandwich is a steal.
“People tell me I need to raise my prices,” says owner Bob Breitenstein, “but I’m trying not to.”
The Reuben at Grinders, with locations at 417 E. 18th St. and 10240 Pflumm Road in Lenexa, has a softer, looser construction. The $9 sandwich tops paper-thin shreds of seasoned corned beef with homemade Thousand Island dressing, baby Swiss and sauerkraut studded with charred bits of jalapeno that are more sweet than spicy. The marble rye is grilled, but not pressed, so the sandwich stands tall and will spill its contents if you’re not careful.
Even more napkins are required by the gloriously messy Reuben at Quinton’s Bar & Deli, with locations in Waldo, Lawrence and Topeka.
Michael Glenn, a cook at the Lawrence location, says the secret to a great Reuben is grilling the corned beef before stacking it on marble rye. Once the corned beef is hot, Glenn adds on sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing, then blankets the pile with sliced Swiss.
“The cheese melts and creates a lava with the Thousand Island dressing,” Glenn says. Quinton’s Reuben costs $9 for a full sandwich with chips or $9 for a half sandwich with chips and a bread bowl of soup.
If you’re not big on mayo-based Thousand Island, try the Reuben at Browne’s Irish Marketplace, 3300 Pennsylvania Ave., which can be made with spicy horseradish sauce, Thousand Island dressing, or both. For $10.69, you can get a whole sandwich with a side of Browne’s creamy potato soup, a best-seller.
“On cold winter days, we’ll sell 10 gallons of it,” says owner John McClain.
Attention to detail is the key ingredient in the bestselling Reuben sandwich at D’Bronx Authentic Deli & Pizzeria. Freshly cooked corned beef is warmed on a grill before it’s piled high on fresh rye bread baked by a local commercial bakery using a New York-style recipe that’s exclusive to D’Bronx. The deli makes the Thousand Island dressing, but it buys sauerkraut from Boar’s Head and imports the Emmentaler Swiss cheese.
The $7.55 sandwich is perfectly proportioned: It’s no wonder the deli’s locations in Kansas City, Overland Park and Mission slice through 40 to 50 pounds of corned beef every day.
For an oversized Reuben, go to M&M Bakery and Deli, 1721 E. 31st St. Owner Pat Williams bakes rye bread from his own recipe for his Reubens, which are wrapped in white paper before they’re handed across the counter to customers.
Unwrap the hefty bundle and you’ll see a halved sandwich that resembles a geological cross section. Between sandy-brown slices of rye smeared with a thin layer of pale orange Thousand Island, there are two stacks of pink corned beef sandwiching melted Swiss, sauerkraut, slivered red onions and sliced dill pickle spears. The juicy sandwich costs $6.75 and “comes with a bag of chips and a smile,” Williams says.
Enterprise reporter Sarah Gish writes about dining in Kansas City twice monthly. She’s still on the lookout for great Reubens in Kansas City. Have a suggestion? Contact her via email at email@example.com or tweet @sarah_gish.
Editor’s note: Today marks the start of Sarah Gish’s column, Dish With Gish, in The Star’s Food section. It has previously been published in Ink, The Star’s weekly nightlife and entertainment magazine.