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In search of Petaluma’s perfect Reuben sandwhich

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I had no idea how many sandwich shops, delis and restaurants offered Reuben’s in Petaluma, until it came up in conversation on social media recently. The discussion inspired this food writer and his food crew to try more than a dozen of our local offerings of my favorite hot sandwich.

Overall, the Reubens were great, even though each was different in its own way. Emery of Sarah’s Eats & Sweets, home of an exquisite array of Reubens, warned me that unlike other sandwiches, Reubens have a shelf life. It is a sandwich that is best eaten at the point of origin as it tends to get cold and soggy as time passes on the way home.

Traditional taste

Typically, a Reuben sandwich consists of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing, piled between slices of rye bread. However, before we start arguing that certain Reubens are not really Reubens, I will remind readers that we are in California, where we tend to pay homage to, but do not feel bound by, strict traditions.

Personally, I grew up believing that pastrami was the correct meat in a Reuben. I have since learned that is closer to a “Rachel,” but because that also substitutes coleslaw for sauerkraut, is not quite the same as a pastrami Reuben. Whatever you want to call it, I prefer the name “Reuben.”

Although the original Reuben was “pressed” with a panini press, with all the ingredients already combined, most shops grill or toast their bread prior to building the sandwich, which allows the flavors to remain distinctive, while making for a less messy sandwich, because the bread is more firm.

There is no question that a Reuben requires sauerkraut and Swiss cheese, and no substitutes have ever been suggested otherwise, but the dressing is a topic of debate. A traditional Reuben calls for Russian dressing, although many sandwich shops simply use Thousand Island, because it is easy to purchase pre-made.

This ryes for you

Many New Yorkers will tell you a Reuben must be made with dark rye bread, but that simply is not true. Notwithstanding each of our personal Reuben rye preferences, a “traditional” Reuben is not married to a specific rye, but uses any rye, whether dark, light or the Petaluma predominant marbled.

Rye bread is made using the flour ground from rye berries instead of wheat, however, do not celebrate just yet, all you gluten-free eaters. Because rye contains almost no gluten-producing proteins, wheat flour is almost always added, at least in small quantities, to create an edible loaf.

Some opt for Pumpernickel, made from pumpernickel flour, which although derived from rye, uses the whole berry, and is therefore quite coarse. It is dark and dense, and has a stronger flavor than the other ryes.

Great meat debate

Both corned beef and pastrami are traditionally made from beef brisket, although Sarah’s Eats & Sweets uses beef tri-tip to devastatingly delicious effect. Both are cured, but corned beef is cured with a salty brine while pastrami is cured with a dry rub. Pastrami is also smoked after curing.

Off the norm

Reubens come in several forms, and thankfully, Petaluma has plenty of them on deck. In some parts of the country, a Rachel using turkey is called a “California” or “Georgia” Reuben.

Along with their excellent Reuben, Ray’s Deli and Tavern offers the Rachel, and would likely make you a California Reuben if you asked. Sarah’s Eats & Sweets offers both a California, as well as a veggie Reuben which blew my mind. I tried it years ago, but either could not remember the ingredients, or wanted to block them out, because I was a bit embarrassed that I actually found a veggie sandwich tasty. It is made with cooked mushrooms, onions and peppers, all things I usually don’t enjoy. In fact, I almost did not try this sandwich because I was sure I would not like that combo of ingredients, but was again surprised at how good it was.

Two other not-so-traditional local Reuben’s are Mike’s at the Crossroad’s “Moo-Ben,” which is a Reuben atop one of their burgers; and the “Reuben Dog” at Roy’s Chicago Doggery, a dog topped with traditional Reuben tastes.

Down to tasting

At Sarah’s Eats & Sweets, they use Full Circle Bakery bread, Sonoma Brinery kraut and pickles and house-made pastrami built from beef tri-tip. “Emery is from California and I’m from New York,” says Sarah, “so it’s kind of a mixture of both places.”

They also put the cheese on the bottom, under the kraut, which helps keep the bread from getting soggy. This Reuben, along with their two alternatives, set the bar high.

We then landed at Sax’s Joint, where we found our Reuben filled with huge slabs of perfectly cooked corned beef, in between grilled buttered bread, with an outstanding tanginess to their sauce and kraut.

Pub Republic also really impressed with their hand-cut fries, and their corned beef and pastrami combo Reuben, with house-made Russian dressing. The toasted marbled rye was another crowd-pleaser.

Charley’s Wine Country Deli makes a pretty mean Reuben, especially if you like things bold and tangy, as I do. The bread comes from Bordenave’s Bakery in San Rafael, which was the only bakery they could source bread from during last year’s fires, when Charley’s was making sandwiches and sending them up the firefighters.

Once I discovered that Hallie’s Diner does lunch, their Reuben was the first thing I ordered, and I fell in love. They cook the corned beef in-house, and go out of their way to keep it on the lean side. Hallie’s uses marbled rye from Basque Boulangerie Café in Sonoma. Although offered with a healthy side salad or French fries, I prefer to get the black beans.

Ray’s Deli & Tavern uses Full Circle Bakery marbled rye and their pastrami is excellent, as is the sandwich as a whole, which came as no surprise given their rave reviews. A bit off the beaten path, there is a reason that Ray’s always has a line, and the wait is always worth it.

Traxx always surprises us with the quality of their food, and their Reuben was no exception. They too use Full Circle Bakery, make their own sauce and ferment their own sauerkraut for six weeks. It is served with hand-cut fries.

Palms Grill uses their own corned beef and some excellent bread from Franco American, which they get deliver daily. You can order it with sweet potato fries, which I had a chance to try piping hot and crispy, dipped in their house-made ranch dressing, an unbelievably good combo that I will order again.

Flamez also corns their own beef topped with Thousand Island dressing and an excellent sauerkraut. It all sits on Franco American bread, which they grill to perfection.

I only recently discovered Ulia’s, and if their Reuben is any indication of how they create sandwiches, I will definitely be back. They offer it with either corned beef or pastrami, light or dark rye, topped with both spicy mustard and Russian dressing. Unlike the others, which tended to stack their ingredients, Ulia’s mixes everything together, which made for such a tender and evenly flavored sandwich that I had a hard time boxing it up for transport.

Two locations that often offer Reuben’s, but did not have them while I was writing this article were McNear’s and Thistle Meats. When available, McNear’s Reuben is made with Zoe’s pastrami, a local favorite, and is topped with Asian slaw. Thistle Meats uses a very smoky pastrami, which may be my favorite pastrami of all time. I check in regularly to see if it is on their limited sandwich menu, and grab at least a couple whenever I find it.

There are plenty of other sandwich shops in town that likely offer Reuben’s, from Lombardi’s to Petaluma Market to Michael’s Sourdough, but we simply ran out of capacity to eat any more. One word of warning though is that if you are picky, you should ask ahead how they prepare theirs. And also watch out for delis that may have their “top shelf” meats on display, but use an inferior meat, unless you ask for the good stuff specifically. Whatever you do, try to eat your Reuben on-site. It will make a huge difference.

Get more Reuben insights in the online features to this story at petaluma360.com.

The original Reuben

There are two main claims behind the origins of the Reuben sandwich. One is out of Omaha, Nebraska, while the other, more boisterous, is not surprisingly, out of New York City. New Yorkers are a brash bunch who bitterly dismiss Omaha’s claim because there was a sandwich shop in NYC called Reuben’s, that offered a “Reuben” in the early 1900s, however, the ingredients were not even close to what we now find in the hot sandwich. There’s evidence that a weekly poker game, held at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha, was the birthplace of the Reuben. Looking for a mid-game snack, a player named Reuben Kulakofsky requested a mid-game snack, and the hotel’s chef created a sandwich with the same ingredients we use today. Additionally, the Reuben first appears in print on the Blackstone’s menu, and was later entered by one of the hotel employees in a national sandwich competition, which it won.

Dressed down

Both were invented in the early 1900’s in the Northeast, with Russian coming from New Hampshire, and Thousand Island hailing from the Thousand Island region that straddles the border of New York and Ontario.

Russian dressing, although invented in the US, is rumored to have earned its name because it originally contained caviar, was originally meant to top a Russian-inspired salad or, possibly, because of Russian’s love of tart pickles and relish, which are key ingredients. A mixture of mayonnaise and chili sauce or ketchup, plus pickles/relish, horseradish and paprika, it is pleasantly tart and biting, unlike the sweeter Thousand Island dressing.

Thousand Island dressing, which is also based in mayonnaise and sometimes includes ketchup, relies more on lemon or orange juice, cream, sweet pickles/relish or olives to give it a sweeter flavor. Unfortunately, Russian dressing has all but disappeared from deli counters, so if they tell you they make their sauce specially for their Reuben sandwich, I suggest giving it a try as it is likely going to be more than just your standard Thousand Island dressing.

So why has Russian dressing fallen in disfavor? Speculation is that when a country falls out of favor with America, we tend to avoid using its name, such as our switch to calling hamburgers, named after the city of Hamburg, German, “freedom burgers” after we help defeat the Germans during World War I, or the short-lived “freedom fries” when France refused to accompany the allied efforts against Iraq after 9/11.

Perfectly paired

This is the perfect season to revisit Reuben sandwiches, because many believe that Oktoberfest beers are the perfect complement for a Reuben. Because Oktoberfest beers are malty, so more sweet than hoppy beers, lagers such as a marzen (Oktoberfest) or Vienna lager go well with Reuben’s tart and salty flavors.