Hanukkah is out there, somewhere, hidden within the last few months of the year by the ancient designs of an unknowable lunar calendar. I have been Jewish all my life and never once known when Hanukkah is, or will be, or if it has already been. It’s impossible to plan for, and this year in particular I cannot be bothered to consult the oracles or check Google or whatever. But even the celestial whims of the moon herself can’t keep us from heavy traditional foods, and in the spirit of holiday hedonism I offer this ode to my favorite culinary product of the Jewish diaspora: the Reuben sandwich.
A Reuben, to those who have never spoken to a New Yorker at length, is a glistening heap of either corned beef or pastrami, topped with sauerkraut (pickled cabbage), melted Swiss cheese, and unctuously slathered with either Russian or Thousand Island dressing. This is typically placed—with either fawning care or callow disregard depending on the quality of your deli—between slices of sturdy rye bread, which are often also fried in butter.
The debate between the two respective meats and dressings is to me the choice between Peter Gabrial Genesis and Phil Collins Genesis: the merits of either can be argued by purists, but both are capable of producing bops. What’s most important, according to local sandwich aficionado (and legendary TV writer) Bill Oakley, is balance: “I don’t want any one element to overwhelm the sandwich. I want the meat, I want the sauerkraut or coleslaw (depending on how you make it), and I want a lot of Thousand Island or Russian dressing, because that's the thing that they always skimp on. So I always ask for it on the side as well. I think that 90 percent of Reubens don't have enough of that in my opinion.”
We have perhaps grown inured to the idea of a Reuben because it is ubiquitous on restaurant menus—but so is lobster and that doesn't make it right. Under any scrutiny the Reuben is an assault on good sense, composed of overwhelmingly intense ingredients that were supposed to get Romanian peasants through unforgiving winters at a time when half a head of cabbage was expected to feed a family of 27. Despite copious amounts of salad dressing and the presence of said cabbage, a Reuben is actually the philosophical opposite of a salad, nitrate rich and nutrient poor. It is also an extremely delicious combination of Old World flavors, which is why both greasy spoons and fancy bistros have been throwing them on hot griddles for the better part of a century.
Where, then, to satiate a Reuben fixation? The common wisdom is that Goose Hollow Inn has the best in town, and much as I might like to make waves with audacious pronouncements, I simply can’t in this case. It’s a damn-near perfect specimen, with generously thick curls of corned beef nestled in perfect syncopation with a pungent strata of sauerkraut, and their signature “Reuben sauce” evenly distributed throughout. But it’s the bread that’s the real triumph, with an impossibly thin cracker-crisp shell encasing rich, chewy, coffee-brown rye. If I have a gripe, it’s that the sauerkraut is situated between layers of meat, which leads to some slip-n-sliding. But I rank structural integrity low on the hierarchy of Reuben needs. Since it’s an inherently sloppy sandwich, a fair amount of it is going down the side of your sleeve. A Reuben can be a date food, but only if you’re trying to conform to some kind of avant-garde lifestyle blog.
For those who prefer variety over doctrine, there’s Edelweiss Sausage & Delicatessen, which has the most subgenres under one roof. The signature Edelweiss Reuben is a mustard-forward Frankenstein, but they have classic corned beef and pastrami versions, as well as red cabbage and turkey variants. These are Reubens wise to the parable of Icarus, satisfyingly unambitious examples of the form, and wise as well to the parable of Fieri which is that if Guy Fieri likes it you can’t go too wrong.
The best vegetarian Reuben can be found at DC Vegetarian, and it’s completely viable as a Reuben, full stop, no vegetarian asterix. It’s got the heft that indicates a filling sandwich even before tooth hits bread, and most importantly they nail the sauerkraut-dressing ratio. I’m not well-versed in what counts as a good house seitan, but what’s in there is smoky and robustly layered in a way that indicates “Reuben-ness” without lurching into the uncanny valley. An honorable mention goes to Fermenter’s Koji Beet Reuben, which isn’t necessarily a great Reuben (the hazelnut chive cheese isn’t melty and smoked beets are an imperfect substitute for beef), but it is a darn good beet sandwich, which isn’t nothing.
A popular adage is that there’s no such thing as bad pizza, but I am here to tell you there’s such a thing as a bad Reuben. Like a bumblebee flying an antique biplane, each of the disparate elements act in tension with each other, and to forsake one is to upset the entire improbable contraption. I have had Reubens that were so overloaded and soggy they did not contain a texture recognizable as bread. I’ve had dry, dense Reubens that had more in common with the inside of a baseball than you want for anything that isn’t the inside of a baseball. After a month of researching this article my poops are very, very bad, with various strains of fermented cabbage probiotic warring for intestinal supremacy like the rival houses of Frank Herbert’s Dune.
I’m not going to call anyone out, because Hanukkah isn’t a festival of judgement—it’s a festival of light, fried food, and little chocolate coins. But I’d advise any restaurateur with a subpar Reuben on the menu to get their house in order, because more judgmental holidays are coming down the pipe. I’m just not sure when, exactly.