My favorite sandwich has always been the Reuben. I mean, what’s not to love about this two-handed wonder, this sandwich of disputed origin? It has it all: toasted bread, succulent meat and an exquisite chewiness enhanced by its resident vegetable and the goo sisters, Thousand Island dressing and Swiss cheese.
But can corned meat ever be a metaphysical experience? Can its flavor profile transcend taste buds? I sure thought so when I volunteered for this assignment. Although I remained a devotee after my first and second tries, by my 13th, I could almost hear my intestines crying for help as I routinely dunked them in meat juices. Yet I rallied long enough to complete my journey – almost spiritual at times – to find Milwaukee’s quintessential Reuben.
The memorable first stop on this tour de boeuf was the unassuming Hairy Lemon Irish Pub (2102 State Road 164, Richfield). The thick, house-made cuts of corned beef mingled with the other ingredients to delicious effect. Euphoria washed over me with every bite and, to borrow a phrase from the yogis, I was smiling from my stomach.
My third test – the massive meat-stuffed version from Jake’s Deli – didn’t disappoint, either. But it was at this point that I had a hard think about my GI tract. Was the salty delirium worth the havoc raging in my stomach? I prayed to the gods of digestion, swearing I’d cleanse for a month if they’d let me finish at least half of this blessed meat pile.
My prayers were answered with Benji’s classic deli-diner sandwich, with its buttered, grilled marbled rye bread; prudent serving of juicy corned beef; Swiss cheese; no-frills kraut; and Thousand Island on the side. Ingesting it made me feel like an extra in Pleasantville, happily chomping away and not for a second worried about my escalating case of meat sweats.
It was only after Benji’s that I learned some restaurateurs see a Reuben as a vehicle for sauerkraut, not to mention ingredient variations that would offend purists. As my meat meditations became angrier, I began questioning my faith. What does salad dressing have to do with islands? And just how big is the average human stomach?
Yet I Reubened on.
I was eventually rewarded with No. 12 at Waukesha’s Rochester Deli (143 W. Broadway). A larger mouth is the only thing that could have helped me devour this perfectly proportioned, pressed sammie topped with uber-satisfying, super-creamy Swiss.
Like reaching the top of my gastric climb, No. 13 at McBob’s (4919 W. North Ave.), was the pinnacle of brined meat. Entering the darkened bar, I watched a cook gently slice a slab of corned beef. After a dozen of these salty beasts, could I really stomach another? No question! The generous portion was juicy, not greasy, almost silky in texture – so good that I could not, despite WebMD’s urging, put it down.
With breadcrumbs still adhering to my fingertips, I had found my kraut-filled nirvana. Even with the intestinal challenges and occasional self-loathing, I felt confident in the results of my journey.
Although I won’t worship at the temple of Reuben for a while, eating Milwaukee’s best ultimately reminded me of why I loved them so much to begin with. And I felt inner peace knowing we live in a city soaked in sandwich glory.