The origin of the Reuben sandwich is contested. Some say a Lithuanian grocer in Omaha, Neb., created it. Others argue that it came from Reuben's Delicatessen in New York. Of little doubt is that corned beef has a fabled history among the Jewish and Irish immigrants who populated Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Beef was raised in Ireland for export, the English having seized pastureland for the purpose. It was "corned" - preserved in salt and spices - for the British navy and shipped to the colonies. But it wasn't consumed locally.
Once in America, upwardly mobile Irish immigrants frequented Jewish merchants for the meat (brisket) they hadn't been able to afford back home. This is why today corned beef in Ireland is served mainly to misunderstanding tourists (it's not a big part of the cuisine), and why the salty meat figures prominently at both delis and Irish restaurants in the U.S.
To make a Reuben, corned beef is joined by sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, rye bread and Thousand Island (or Russian) dressing. In theory, the dressing was born on the East Coast, but it may also hail from New Orleans - which makes sense, as it's a Creole remoulade with a Slavic twist. Thus, the Reuben could be called "America's European Immigrant Landscape Minus the Italians." "Reuben" is easier.
It's not hard to understand why the sandwich became a sensation. The corned beef, sauerkraut and dressing make for an umami triple threat. The nearly excessive flavor combination hits our hardwired receptors for fat, salt, sweet and tang.
The most famous Reuben example is at Katz's Deli in New York; Zingerman's in Ann Arbor is a close second. Among some aficionados, Langer's in Los Angeles reigns supreme. Near us in Milwaukee, McBob's rightfully gets national attention for its devilishly juicy corned beef.
Here in Madison, Reubens are in plentiful supply. Look for those that have good bread griddled crispy (not too greasy), quality sauerkraut, plenty of dressing (but not cloying), and succulent meat piled high.
On the west side, Quivey's Grove makes a classic example. There isn't quite enough beef, but the pumpernickel bread adds a molasses sweetness.
Brasserie V serves the sandwich at lunch on less than stellar rye bread - but it comes with beautifully crispy red cabbage.
A good choice is to get a seat at the bar at Tony Frank's and dig into a brat Reuben. This is a satisfyingly Sconnie option that's perfect with a cold beer.
Downtown, the Coopers Tavern does a long brine process on the beef, but the thinly sliced portions can be a bit rubbery. The Lake Louie Scotch Ale sauerkraut tastes like French onion soup (not necessarily a flaw).
The Great Dane and Brocach also offer Reubens. These will do the trick, not change your life. The Fountain adds apple bacon kraut, but this twist fails to take the sandwich into new territory. For that, try the Reuben Rolls at the Capital Tap Haus - all the ingredients of a Reuben, served as a campy bite-size snack.
The east side of the isthmus could rightfully be called Corned Beef Corridor. Here, the Reuben at the Avenue Bar wins high praise. It's a standard version, but you can't beat the atmosphere. Ditto Ella's Deli, which serves an oversized open-face Reuben Sizzler in a joyfully kinetic space. It's hard to argue with the experience, and the Reuben is deliciously monstrous.
Lazy Jane's serves a Reuben at lunchtime as well as a Reuben scrambler at breakfast. Neither is as compelling as the restaurant's scones. If Lazy Jane's served corned beef loaded on a savory scone, it could be national news.
Monty's Blue Plate serves a Reuben with house-made corned beef, but more interesting is the Sheldon - a vegan version, with sauerkraut, tomatoes and grilled tofu, minus the Thousand Island (although you can ask for it). It's a great Reuben-esque sandwich, even for meat eaters.
At the Harmony Bar, the corned beef is brined in-house. The Reuben is served on good rye bread and oozes with cheese. This is the gooey-est in town.
The Weary Traveler uses Stalzy's sauerkraut, and employs pastrami instead of corned beef. Not classic, but it's served with a German potato salad that is decidedly old school.
Mickey's Tavern serves its Reuben with a vinegary sweet red pepper slaw that cuts the fat. It's a nicely acidic and messy flavor bomb.
Even the Willy Street Co-op gets into the game with a Reuben that uses all-natural corned beef and adding a little kick with chipotle.
The Irish-inspired spot Erin's Snug Irish Pub makes a surprisingly good Reuben. It's big and luscious, and there are plenty of Irish beers on tap to wash it down.
But the baddest Reuben of all is found at Stalzy's Deli. The beef undergoes a cure that is measured in weeks, not days. The sauerkraut is made in-house. The bread is made in-house. The tender meat is piled high, and then the entirety is griddled to perfection. This beast is hard to get your mouth around.
Proprietor Neil Stalboerger visited Katz's Deli in New York multiple times to perfect the recipes. His sandwich is a bit of Lower Manhattan history preserved as a Reuben, right here in Madison.
[Editor's note: This story has been corrected with the correct spelling of Neil Stalboerger.]