When my beloved and I became a serious couple, his son asked us what our favorite foods were. We both said Reubens.
The first Reuben I ever ordered was in 2000. I was out for Bloody Marys and brunch at the Uptown Diner in Minneapolis (RIP) and a friend insisted I have one. I was skeptical, but it was so good.
During a trip home to Iowa City that year, I had lunch with my sister at Red Avocado (RIP) and ordered the Reuben. The vegan adaptation with tempeh was disarming but intriguing. That summer, waitressing a couple blocks away at Lou Henri (RIP), I tried a vegetarian version, and really haven’t come across another quite like it since. It was special; ask any townie.
In 2018, my partner Corbin and I were taken to the sandwich Holy of Holies, Katz’s Delicatessen in New York. Our host, a meat enthusiast and New York native (pictured above rubbing his hands together), insisted we order it with the house pastrami. I can honestly say the sandwich was one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted, plus, it was served with a huge plate of pickles.
And, by an incredible coincidence only the stars can explain, Corbin’s and my first-date anniversary is on St. Patrick’s Day, our only major holiday celebrated with corned beef and cabbage. I like to get a good brisket from New Pi and make Reubens with the leftovers. (One year due to time constraints, I had to carry a vacuum-sealed one in my backpack to a Joni Ernst town hall.)
Reubens: They are romantic, they are historic, they are interreligious and they are political. Let’s see how some local candidates measure up to the legacy. (Grading on an Iowa curve and using take-out/delivery only.)
92 16th Ave SW, Cedar Rapids
Anvil’s house-made corned beef is served a little bit crispy, which helps balance the greasiness that is built into a Reuben’s DNA. This is the kind of sandwich you can eat one-handed, if you want to — it is well-constructed and won’t fall apart on you. Perfect proportions, in my opinion: 60:40 corned beef to sauerkraut and swiss, and served with a whole dill pickle, as it should be. The dressing was sweet with proper zang. However, points docked for using styrofoam, so not a perfect score. A
110 E College St, Iowa City,
Donnelly’s Reuben is made with slow-cooked house-made brisket, which is definitely a selling point, though the toppings ratio was off for me: probably 80:20 meat to sauerkraut and swiss. Honestly just not enough sauerkraut. In general, everything was a bit too greasy, though I know I’ve had a good one there before, and will try again when things open up — I love the historic bar. Points docked for using styrofoam. C+
1940 Lower Muscatine Rd, Iowa City
Jimmy Jack’s Reuben is only available in March, so get it now if you would like to try one made with smokey, barbecue-style corned beef — house-made, of course. Definitely a departure from traditional briskets and perhaps a tad hard to bite into, but impressive nonetheless. Proportions were good: 60:40 meat to sauerkraut and swiss, served on marble rye. Points docked for using styrofoam. A-
819 S 1st Ave, Iowa City
Shakespeare’s Reuben is made with a deli stock corned beef instead of brisket, but uses a good 60:40 ratio of meat to sauerkraut and swiss, and a zangy dressing that really drives home the traditional flavor one expects from this sandwich. It was greasy but not terribly so, and held together for the duration. Points docked for using styrofoam. B
5300 Edgewood Rd NE, Cedar Rapids
Zeppelins sandwich menu lists the Reuben Royale first, and it is clearly taken seriously here. There is a lot of meat, but it’s very tender and nicely balanced with the toppings; a 60:40 meat to sauerkraut and swiss ratio. A honker, for sure. The sauce was right: a little sweet with some zang. While I preferred the Anvil, my beloved preferred the Zeppelin. Cedar Rapids, you won this round. Served in a cardboard container, not styrofoam. A+
Noteworthy non-traditional contenders
600 N Dodge St, Iowa City
5 S Dubuque St, Iowa City
C&P: Corned beef, pastrami, swiss, dijon and coleslaw
Trumpet Blossom Cafe
310 E Prentiss St, Iowa City
Reuben (vegan): Tempeh, pickled cabbage, onions and 1000 island
Did I miss your favorite? Let me know! firstname.lastname@example.org
A brief history of corned beef
In March, one’s corned beef thoughts turn to cabbage and green beer as everyone becomes Irish for St. Patrick’s Day. Which raises the question: How did the meat in an iconic Irish meal end up in an iconic, if non-kosher, sandwich associated with Jewish delis? The answer is simple. The corned beef we eat on March 17 isn’t Irish; it’s something Irish immigrants to New York learned from their Jewish neighbors.
Ireland began producing beef preserved by brining it with large crystals of salt called “corns” at an industrial scale in the 17th century, but that “pickled beef” was sold to the voyaging British and French navies and merchant ships who were in need of meat that wouldn’t rot. It wasn’t eaten in Ireland, partly because the average person could seldom afford beef.
In the 19th century, Irish immigrants to New York lived alongside Jewish immigrants and bought meat from kosher butchers, who introduced them to brisket that was corned and boiled until tender and delicious—nothing like the stuff being fed to sailors. Corned beef replaced bacon as the meat served with cabbage on Irish tables, since bacon isn’t something you pick up at a kosher butcher shop. —Paul Brennan
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 292.