For a certain group of folks, the good luck found in a plate of corned beef and cabbage is as integral a part of New Year's Day as two Tylenol and a long nap is for others. Maybe it's the cancer-fighting cabbage, or maybe — as Irish-American traditions might lead you you believe — the bewitchment's in the beef.
We don't much care to take sides there. But we do firmly believe that regardless, bread and cheese will make any good thing even better. So we offer, this week, a sandwich showdown a Thousand Islands wide: a fight for the best Reuben.
A food's history is as important a part as a food's recipe, so here's Elizabeth Weil, a woman who looks a surprising amount like Ari Gold's wife in Entourage, writing last June in the New York Times about her father and a weekly poker game in 1920s Nebraska:
"One night one of the players, Reuben Kulakofsky ... asked for a sandwich with corned beef and sauerkraut. In the kitchen, my grandfather, who spent the previous year perfecting his sauces and ice-carving skills, drained the sauerkraut and mixed it with Thousand Island dressing. He layered that with homemade corned beef and Swiss cheese on dark rye bread and grilled it. His typewritten notes call for the sandwich to be served with a sliced kosher dill pickle, a rose radish and potato chips. The sandwich was a hit."
Of course, there are a few other stories of the Reuben's origin, but they're all completely beside the point, in my opinion. It's like arguing about who invented sex, or continuous green lights, or other awesome things that we can all just thank God were created by somebody.
The Reuben is the ultimate hot sandwich, a stacked paean to singularly challenging flavors and the bane of any clean-freak's existence. It promises little — pickled meat with sour cabbage, polarizing cheese, and your choice of unpopular salad dressings — and delivers everything short of a call the next morning. (Unless you have the toasted leftovers for breakfast.)
So, it's not surprising that pretty much every lunch menu on the planet seeks to up the afternoon delight by offering one. That's why the following is not an examination of the best variation in the city — it's a look at the best Reuben of the six we tried. Each was chosen because of regional knowledge, local lore and reader recommendations — unsurprisingly focusing us mostly on the downtown corridor, with all its dives and delis — but we're sure that you know about a better one. So hit us up, if you're in the mood, but only after you've washed off the grease.
819 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs, 685-1195
PJ's makes a good sandwich, but it's not where I would turn if I wanted that sweet, meaty funk. Its panini-pressed iteration ($9.25) — made with turkey pastrami, house sauerkraut, Swiss and Thousand Island, all between French rye made by a bakery in Old Colorado City (an employee was unsure of which one) — is admirably sourced, and delicious. But there's little character to the meat, little dressing on the sandwich, and little oomph to the bread. The nutty characteristics of the gooey Swiss actually stood out the most. Cold, refreshing pasta salad on the side, too, but all together, not what I want when I seek sour satisfaction.
19263 E. U.S. Hwy. 24, 687-2001, swisschaletofwoodlandpark.com
The longtime staple up the pass charmingly wraps its pictures like presents, accents the room with boisterous poinsettias, and displays its menu on a white board that servers move from table to table. Order the Reuben on rye ($12.75), with dressing on the side, and you'll receive a sandwich that's almost as appealing, but falls a little short.
The biggest criticism is how our sandwich's thick, lightly buttered marble-rye, from the Colorado Bread Co., got toasted until the edges were daggers. Sara's Sausage in Palmer Lake supplied some very juicy corned beef, the cheese and kraut did a lovely sweet-and-tangy thing, and our server boxed the leftovers. But the bread was a deal-breaker (and I hate adding my own Thousand Island). Very fresh potato salad, though, with mild horseradish bite.
Wooglin's Deli & Café
823 N. Tejon St., 578-9443, wooglinsdeli.com
Like I said, I hate adding my own dressing, which is one of the few potential drawbacks at Wooglin's, where the Thousand Island comes in a Kraft packet. The other is how our Reuben's Reuben ($8.29) was portioned.
The deli did a lot right — like baking its fluffy, half-inch-thick dark pumpernickel in-house; and making delicious, deeply-potato-y chips; or also sourcing from Sara's Sausage — but there just wasn't enough of any of it. Pull back the top to squirt your dressing in, and the thinnest meat layer of all six we tried smiled back at you, with a light shredding of 'kraut for company. The flavors are right on, the Swiss is strong, and the bread is perfect, but I want a lot more.
Third Place: King's Chef Diner
131 E. Bijou St., 636-5010; 110 E. Costilla St., 634-9135; kingschefdiner.com
The Reuben ($12.75) at King's Chef is a beautiful thing — thick swirls arcing across the grilled rye bread, the dark-red corned beef piled high within. It's been my go-to for years, outside of the accompanying French fries that I've often found soggy.
It would stand to reason, then, that this iteration would boast incredible fries — thin, densely crisp and herby — and a sandwich sporting a pile of meat that seemed grilled past moisture. Its sauerkraut and Thousand also seemed sporadically distributed, which meant random dry bites. A large, impressive portion, if also one of the most expensive, with a killer half-pickle, but not quite the tour de force it can be.
Second Place: East Coast Restaurant and Deli
24 S. Tejon St., 633-4522, eastcoastdeli.net
Our second-strongest contender, the Reuben ($11.99) at East Coast features turkey, corned beef or pastrami — the latter two flown in from New York City and steamed in-house for a minimum of six hours — cut bcinto two gleaming halves with Russian dressing just oozing from the edges.
Hot, balanced and very savory, with thin rye baked in-house holding the whole, humped shebang together, the sandwich only loses out to No. 1 because of the price difference. It's worth noting that other aspects — like eating in front of a display case full of Dr. Brown's soda, Manischewitz borscht and lightly salted matzos — are a jolly time as well.
First Place: P.B. & Jellies
106 E. Kiowa St., 465-2686, pbandjellies.com
Our visit started with the cashier promising the best iteration ever, while pointing out others in the dining room who were happily noshing down. And it's hard to argue with the results.
A half-pound of pale-pink Boar's Head pastrami gets split into multiple layers, separated by Swiss cheese and moist sauerkraut, and dotted with "a touch of [carrot-y] coleslaw for crunch," says one employee, plus Thousand Island. This means that, with delightful consistency, every bite of those three mini-levels is almost blended together to deliver a concentrated variation on the whole. All this comes between a light rye, flecked with caraway seeds, from Aspen Bread Company in Denver.
The second half may turn a little soft while you eat the first, but it's more than worth it because the experience is one of sweet crunches perfectly balancing out the meaty juiciness within. The entire approach is brilliant, and at $8.55 it's by far the best value of the group. (Plus, you can interpret the kids' crayon drawings on the wall while you wait.)