NO ONE KNOWS WHERE THE REUBEN SANDWICH came from. Some say it was the invention of a Jewish Lithuanian grocer named Reuben Kulakofsky, who made it for his weekly poker night at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha, Nebraska. Eventually added to the hotel menu, the sandwich gained national attention when a hotel employee won a national contest with the recipe. Others argue it takes its name from the once-famous-but-now-closed Reuben’s Delicatessen in New York City. This account is bolstered by the fact that the earliest print mentions of the sandwich are indeed from New York City, but undermined by inconsistencies, such as whether the owner invented it himself for a famed Broadway actress (sometimes Marjorie Rambeau, other times Annette Seelos) or whether another chef invented it for the owner’s daughter. Either way, all the witnesses are long dead and the case colder than a mittenless nighthawk trapped on the wrong side of the deli window in the dead of winter. What remains up for debate, however, is the Reuben’s future.

For Solomon “Sol” Shenker, the man behind Sol’s NYC Deli down in Gulf Gate, the answer is simple—
if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. “To a New York deli guy, it’s not just a sandwich,” he says. “I have to keep it authentic.” And Sol is most definitely a New York deli guy. Does he remember his first Reuben? “Oh yeah,” he says, eyes gone wide. “It was heaven on Earth.” Sol was 12 years old at the time and he knew he had to be in the deli business. Two years later, he was.

Thirty years and three restaurants down the line, and Sol’s Reuben hasn’t changed much from that religious experience of his youth. But now he knows how to make it himself. “Every good sandwich starts with the bread,” he says, and for a Reuben it’s got to be marble rye. Sol gets his dough straight from Brooklyn, rising and baking it down here so it’s fresh. The corned beef he brings from Detroit, where a team of professionals pickles and brines the meat to his specifications and with his recipe. Sol keeps it simple, using just a bit of sugar, mustard seed, garlic, pickling seasonings and salt and pepper. He makes sure to get a nice mix of fat and lean meat for that “ultimate flavor,” and boils it all, as is traditional, for at least six hours. Grab some kosher sauerkraut and a good melty Swiss cheese, and all that’s left is the Russian dressing (or Thousand Island dressing), which Sol makes in-house, including the pickled relish.

The real trick, however, the thing that really makes a Reuben come together, is the grilling technique. Grill too much, and the sandwich crumbles apart. Grill too little, and it’s a soggy mess in no time. “It’s all about the crisp,” says Sol, and that means building the sandwich quickly on the grill and in the right order. First, the bread gets a nice toast by itself, before Sol applies a coating of Russian dressing and some Swiss cheese. Next comes a pile of corned beef at least 15 slices thick and a whole tangle of sauerkraut. Capped off with another layer of Swiss cheese and Russian dressing and two pieces of bread (“for grip”), the skyscraper of a sandwich comes off the grill and onto the plate, where it’s served with house-made cole slaw and a recommended pairing of Dr. Brown’s cream soda, also shipped in from New York. “I’m not sure where the Reuben originated,” says Sol, “but I know where it was perfected—a New York City Jewish Deli.”

But not everyone shares Sol’s orthodox viewpoint,
and down in Nokomis, at the ever-popular Café Evergreen Restaurant, chef and owner Ted Weinberger takes the traditional Reuben to task with no fewer than five Reubens on the menu. It’s not that he doesn’t love the sandwich, it’s that he knows it can be better. “We replaced all the bad stuff with good stuff,” says Weinberger. “It’s going to be healthy, and it’s going to taste great.” Even the “Classic” Reuben deviates from the norm. And dedicated to simplicity and purity in his ingredients, Weinberger looks backward to move the Reuben forward, relying on time-tested methods, performed in-house. “What we do here is real simple—not one of these things is hard,” he says, “but it’s a process.” Taking a look at the Classic Reuben, it appears much the same. There’s the marble rye for the bread, though Weinberger’s not going to Brooklyn for it, opting for a Florida bakery instead. And he makes his own sauerkraut, pounding down layers of cabbage and salt in an old-style fermenting crock with an airtight water seal, like sailors used to preserve produce on long voyages. Each batch takes around three months to ferment and results in about 15 pounds of probiotic-rich sauerkraut. The cheese is Swiss and the dressing, though also house-made (with a vegan option featuring a white bean base as opposed to mayo), is still Russian dressing, so where’s the twist? Instead of boiling, Weinberger always roasts his corned beef. It may seem like a small thing, he says, but the result brings his Reuben to another level and unlocks a “whole different and intense flavor.” Boiling, while traditional, leeches flavor into the water, he further explains, but roasting it lends an extra succulence as it cooks in its own juices. Perhaps for this reason, Weinberger can layer his meat much more modestly, resulting in a less towering final product. 

But for those keeping count, that leaves four Reubens unaccounted for and the kitchen’s still open. Looking down the menu, Weinberger offers a turkey Reuben, swapping the proteins, and puts his own little twist on that old Florida favorite, the Grouper Reuben, with a Grilled Mahi Mahi Reuben, and then things get weird with the Roasted Beet Reuben. “It sounds crazy,” Weinberger admits, “but it works.” Beets are baked for three hours, peeled while piping hot, sliced and pickled in-house in a light solution of rice wine vinegar. (Again, “It’s a process.”) Once properly pickled, the sliced beets join house-made sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and some house-made Russian dressing between two slices of marble rye bread and—voila!—a roasted beet Reuben, where the seemingly disparate tastes ultimately meld into something altogether new (and enough to make a carnivore think twice). An instant success, it’s already popping up on neighboring menus, he says. For the vegans, Weinberger drops the Swiss and swaps in the aforementioned vegan-friendly dressing, with all the tamari-onion-pickle goodness, but with an extra dose of white bean instead of mayo. And if that weren’t enough, there lies a sixth Reuben in waiting at Evergreen Café, hiding off-menu but available to those in the know—the avocado Reuben. Relatively new, it’s already a hot commodity. But the question remains, why, for Sol’s sake, why can’t they just leave the poor Reuben be? Says Weinberger, “Because every one we put on just sells so well.”