Eat This Now: Reuben sandwich

By Ron Swarner on May 27, 2014

Last time I visited my friend Heide in New York, I stumbled, quite accidentally, upon a great corned beef on rye at one of her favorite breakfast diner stops. Finding a high quality sandwich at a small coffee shop known more for its matzoh brei and blintzes than its meat on bread wasn't really much of a shock. The Big Apple is the unofficial capital of ethnic delicatessens.

Back home again, I wondered how the South Sound's delis would stack up when the urge for one of Manhattan's famed heart-stoppers hits.

Seeing as this endeavor begs the question of sandwich authenticity, let me say that a little research proved that there is much confusion over the, er, Reuben. So many competing parties lay claim to its invention (and therefore proper construction) that it's hard to separate the possibly valid from the surely apocryphal. For instance, to grill or not to grill, that is a question that has bothered many a brisket.

In desperation, I turned to Craig Claiborne's excellent New York Times Food Encyclopedia for help. There, Claiborne (RIP) cites a few rival authors - all ironically named Reuben - but in the end lays his pickle next to the assertion made by one Fern Snider of (surprise!) Omaha, Neb. Seems Fern won the 1956 National Sandwich Contest with a recipe that came from her boss, ex-chef Bernard Schimmel, and one of his poker-playing chums, grocer Reuben Kay. Schimmel and Kay's concoction called for thinly sliced corned beef on one piece of fresh sourdough pumpernickel, Swiss cheese on the other piece. Cold, crisp, drained sauerkraut mixed with Russian dressing is then heaped on top of one side of the bread. All of this is either served cold or buttered and grilled; if the latter, Chef Schimmel insisted "the sandwich should be hot on the outside, cold on the inside."

Armed with this information, I headed for one of my favorite lunch spots - The Bair Bistro in Steilacoom.

Steilacoom's historic drug and hardware store turned bistro serves a grilled, piping hot Reuben. The large sandwich arrives with layers of house-cured corned beef, Thousand Island dressing, gooey Swiss cheese and a pile of cider sauerkraut. The ingredients are stuffed between grilled, crisp marbled rye. Somehow, the work of art doesn't call for a quick swipe of antique silverware decorating the shelves. The cheese binds, grabbing a hold of the kraut as if Claiborne was hovering over it.

Bair's Reuben might not be Schimmel's vision, but it's an excellent sandwich.

This delight is served with a smile and a $10.49 bill, with choice of salad or fries.

Drat. I forgot to look up if Claiborne includes root beer floats in his little pamphlet. The Root Bair Float is freakin' delicious.

REUBEN SANDWICH, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, The Bair Bistro, 1617 Lafayette, Steilacoom, 253.588.9668