Food Fight: Battle Reuben Sandwich

Categories: Food Fight

Spec's Reuben.jpg
Spec's.

When you order a Reuben sandwich, you're telling the rest of the world (or at least anyone within 20 feet of you for the rest of the day) that they, too, will be having a Reuben. It's a strong move. I once ordered a Reuben at the legendary Brent's Deli in Northridge, California, but couldn't finish in time for the matinee showing of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone at the theater down the street. So I got the remainder to go and snuck it in. During one of the seventeen Quidditch matches, I took a bathroom break and, upon my return, the entire theater smelled like corned beef. Insensitive? Probably. Then again, it was a second-run theater, there was only one other person in the audience, and corned beef was an upgrade in the aroma department.

The Reuben sandwich, a staple of Jewish delicatessens, was invented in the early 1900s, either in Omaha or New York City. I know what you're thinking. They had Jewish people in Omaha? Although its origin story may be an enigma smothered with secret sauce, today everyone knows what a Reuben sandwich is: hot corned beef, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on rye bread. Somehow, at many establishments, the Reuben has morphed into a six-inch-high monstrosity overflowing with cheese and meat, all but impossible to finish in a single sitting unless your name is Paul Bunyan. How did this become a selling point? A Reuben needs to be eaten right away or not at all. Wait even ten minutes, and the bread is soggy from absorbing the dressing and sauerkraut, the cheese congeals into a fatty glob, and the once-steaming meat is lukewarm. I learned this the hard way.

I like the Reuben at Kenny & Ziggy's, even though it is the supersize variety, but for this food fight I decided to go with two suggestions from the comments: Spec's and Branch Water Tavern.

To the judging!

Branch Water Tavern Rueben [sic].jpg
Branch Water Tavern.
Spec's: Reuben-to-die-for ($6.99, comes with two small pickles)
Spec's is no one's idea of a Jewish deli, but damn if they don't deliver the mail. Their Reuben is a half-pound of thin-sliced Angus corned beef, warmed and folded around a middle layer of sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese, then topped with a another layer of sauerkraut, dressing, and cheese, and served on dark pumpernickel. Every bite contains the elemental flavors of the Reuben: the saltiness of the corned beef, the tang of the sauerkraut, the sweetness of the dressing, the smoothness of the cheese, and the sharpness of the caraway-studded bread.

There's nothing subtle about a Reuben, but it's also the sort of dish where more is not more. Many a Reuben has been ruined by getting the proportions wrong, usually by adding too much cheese. Spec's effort is a marvel of balance. As much as is possible with a Reuben, after you finish you feel neither queasy nor remorseful.

Spec's Reuben is also available in a "baby" size for $4.99, with a mere quarter pound of meat (and on rye bread). But when I asked about it, the counterwoman shook her head sadly and put her thumb and index finger a mere inch apart. "Not enough meat," she declared. "Don't do it."

Branch Water Tavern: Rueben [sic] ($9, with your choice of onion rings, fries or salad, and two sliced pickle rounds)

Last year, Katharine Shilcutt wrote in loving detail about Branch Watern Tavern's in-house charcuterie program. Happily, executive chef/owner David Grossman's program also extends to the pastrami used in the Reuben sandwich. But what makes the sandwich great is also its downfall: the aromatic, peppery pastrami is so flavorful that it overwhelms everything else. I could see a thin layer of cabbage (between coleslaw and sauerkraut), a smear of Russian dressing, and a dollop of melted Gruyère, but I couldn't taste any of them. And with each successive bite, the mouthfeel and flavor of pastrami became ever more dominant.

Oh, I ate the whole thing, with gusto, but it wasn't much of a Reuben. Reubenesque, perhaps. In addition to the substitution of pastrami, the thing was served on a baguette. A baguette! Maybe the menu's identification of the sandwich as a "rueben" wasn't a misspelling after all.

The Winner: Spec's. What Branch Water Tavern serves is an excellent pastrami sandwich.



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Location Info

Kenny & Ziggy's Delicatessen Restaurant

2327 Post Oak Blvd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Spec's Deli

2410 Smith, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Branch Water Tavern - CLOSED

510 Shepherd, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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17 comments
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J. Britt Alexander
J. Britt Alexander

Kahn's is as good as it ever was. And would have taken this competition. - heck, even Katz would have played well.

TravelSteveR
TravelSteveR

Actually, I prefer a pastrami reuben to a corned beef reuben. Some places call it a Rachel and substitute cole slaw for the pastrami--I like the sauerkraut with the pastrami. To me, pastrami is more moist than corned beef.

vic
vic

open face reuben from kenny and ziggys....nuf said

Jhangten
Jhangten

You need to go to the Little Bitty Burber Barn 5503 pinemont for the best reuben sandwich best jewish rye kraut cornbeef, best fresh cut fries! oiii! veigh!

Kevin Shalin
Kevin Shalin

My wife fancies the reuben at Little Bitty Burger Barn.

vext
vext

The great thing about a Reuben is, I dislike all the ingredients separately, but put together they're delicious.

Kyle
Kyle

Yes, they become more than the sum of their parts, somehow.

trisch
trisch

Proportions and balance are important for lots of reasons. Last time I was in New Jersey, I got knocked over (literally) by a Reuben that was taller than me. (Check out Harold's New York Deli atthe Edison, NJ Holiday Inn). The clerk who was delivering it to a take-out customer could barely see over it and collided with me in the aisle. Kind of left me frightened of corned beef. But I'm glad it wasn't one of their 5-foot tall chocolate cakes.

TravelSteveR
TravelSteveR

I always eat at Harold's. We bought a slice of cake there once, took it back to the hotel, and ate it for 3 days!

Tim
Tim

I agree that the Spec's sandwich is great. I'm a bit surprised about your experience with Branchwater. I haven't been there for a couple of months, but I recall the reuben there as being out of this world.

Incidentally, for the Heights obsessed, I would add that the reuben at Carter and Cooley is good, but not a good choice there compared to their other sandwiches. Finally, I just had another reuben from Kraftmen in the Heights and it was very nice - definitely in the 'gourmet' rather than the mouth-stretching category. I gotta find my way to Kenny and Ziggy's one day so that I can finally find out what all the fuss is about...

Greg Burland
Greg Burland

It's all well and good that Spec's has a decent Reuben, but does their beef come close to Kenny & Ziggy's? Otherwise this is a battle between places that aren't K&Z's.

Fatty FatBastard
Fatty FatBastard

I will say this as seriously as a heart attack: I do not like K&Z's reuben. They serve it open-faced and put FAR too much cheese on it. It turns into a gloppy mess before it even gets to the table.

Kyle
Kyle

I feel like Kahn's should have been in this fight.

Fatty FatBastard
Fatty FatBastard

I was about to post the exact same thing. IMO, the best reuben in Houston.

Kyle
Kyle

Definitely used to be. My spies tell me it has gone downhill since Mike sold it (especially the sandwich size), but I have no confirmation.

CMN
CMN

have had 2 in the last few months, both delicious.

Matthew Dresden
Matthew Dresden

Duly noted. But I could only pick two places, and I, too, had heard that Kahn's had gone downhill, so that was that. If it helps, other contenders included Victor's, Carter & Cooley, Zelko Bistro, Doyle's, and New York Bagels & Deli (among others). Additionally, I was proceeding on the basis that Kenny & Ziggy's, having already received considerable coverage in the Press, could be considered one of the top Reubens in Houston without me having to include it here.

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