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Nebraska’s rich history of the reuben

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Who invented the reuben?

The meaty grilled sandwich has an origin story that diverges in two directions: one that begins in a New York City delicatessen, and the other in Omaha at the famed Blackstone Hotel. 

As the New York version is told, a famous actress strolled into the deli in 1914 and exclaimed, “I’m so hungry I could eat a brick!” Arnold Reuben, the proprietor, grabbed Virginia ham, roast turkey, and imported Swiss cheese, topped it with coleslaw and Russian dressing, tucked it between slices of rye bread, and thus, the Reuben’s Special was born.

The Omaha version began in 1925 when local grocer Reuben Kulakofsky requested a sandwich during a poker game at a hotel owned by Charles Schimmel. Schimmel’s son Bernard, who had just returned from training as a chef in Switzerland, created the original using Russian rye bread, corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing.

Regardless which tale you believe, the modern version of the reuben generally includes corned beef, sauerkraut, a ketchup and mayonnaise-based dressing (similar to Thousand Island dressing), and Swiss cheese on grilled or toasted marble rye bread. Nebraskans are ardent fans of the melty concoction, and local patrons enjoy friendly debate about which eatery makes the best version in Omaha. 

Barrett’s Barleycorn owner Karen Barrett first put a reuben on the menu as a special because her family loved it. “Our mom made them through our childhood, and we loved them,” she said. “I remember getting them at Bishop’s cafeteria. I’ve tried them everywhere, and a lot of Omaha restaurants do the sandwich some real justice.” 

The reuben found its way to the static menu and remains popular with diners, selling around 120 per week according to manager Tiger Buchholz. The cooks at Barrett’s toss two slices of Rotella’s marble rye bread on the flat top, topping each with a slice of Swiss cheese. The beef is mounded on the grill with the sauerkraut, then chopped together with a generous dollop of Thousand Island dressing as it heats to better meld the flavors. A generous drizzle of dressing tops each cheesy bread slice, then the meat is added and, finally, according to Barrett, “The whole sandwich comes together in a fabulous, gooey you need a bunch of napkins art form.”

Thanks to media attention from a former Omaha World-Herald food critic, the Crescent Moon’s reuben became famous. Ironically, when the bar and grill first opened, owner Bill Baburek was solely focused on craft beer. “In my mind, beer trumped food, but the kitchen manager at the time encouraged me to branch out.” 

It was kitchen manager John Begley who mentioned the reuben was created just across the street in the Blackstone Hotel and started developing his own version. The crucial variable for the Crescent Moon sandwich is that it’s not grilled on a flat top. The original kitchen wasn’t equipped with anything but a char broil on which they prepared burgers and a conveyor pizza oven. Begley experimented with different bread types and fillings, as well as using the conveyor oven at different times and temperatures.

The Crescent Moon reuben comprises slow-roasted Omaha Steaks brisket, a closely guarded sauerkraut mix, Swiss cheese, and Rotella’s marble rye bread. According to Baburek, the eatery sells about 300 reuben sandwiches a week, so consistency matters. “It’s a balancing act, it doesn’t have one predominant flavor, you taste sourness, creamy, the crispy of bread. You want different flavors to meld in each bite.”

Executive chef Jason Sirois of the Orleans Room at the Kimpton Cottonwood Hotel (previously The Blackstone) has the unique responsibility of doing justice, in the original location, to the recipe generously provided by the granddaughter of Reuben Kulakofsky. “The origin story makes it a fun item for people to order,” Sirois said. “Total sales vary, but I’ll just say it’s by far and away the most sold singular item in the hotel week to week.”

Staff at The Orleans Room use top quality ingredients, starting with Prime certified angus beef brisket sourced from 1855 Black Angus Beef. The brisket is brined, vacuum sealed, and placed into a sous vide water bath overnight for maximum tenderness and texture. The house-made sauerkraut is lacto-fermented under vacuum seal, which breaks down the natural sugars in the cabbage, creating a mild, flavorful kraut. 

“Our team likes to joke that there are 1000 ingredients in our Thousand Island dressing, but it’s really only 16,” explained Sirois. The team opts for gruyere instead of Swiss cheese to provide an earthy, nuttier note, and the whole thing is sandwiched between two hearty slices of Rotella’s Russian rye bread smeared with a house mustard for extra kick and depth of flavor.  From there it’s a simple process of grilling the meat and bread to melt the cheese and meld the flavors. 

Sandwiches are rarely served solo, and the reubens of Omaha are no exception. The Orleans Room includes a side of truffle fries and tangy lemon aioli, as well as house pickles. Sirois recommends pairing their reuben with a European-style ale like a Paulaner or Delirium, but it’s also complemented by a bright, tangy cocktail such as the Raspberry Beret, which contrasts the fat with sweet acidity. Server Jackie Thompson of Barrett’s sells a lot of fresh brewed iced tea and fries with lunchtime reubens, and Baburek opts for an icy cold lager.  

For those who prefer a twist on the classic, Barrett’s offers a turkey reuben (known as a Rachel), or a bowl of ingredients without the bread for those cutting back on carbs. Crescent Moon does not offer a Rachel, but during Reuben Fest, the standard reuben ingredients are reinvented as quesadillas, deviled eggs, or other concoctions. The Orleans Room also features a version with turkey, and in the summer at the pool club the food truck serves a reuben pizza. 

Regardless of origin story or variations in preparation, the reuben remains a favorite of diners everywhere. Sirois sums up the appeal, “The reuben combines salt, fat, acid, rich cream, and crispy. It has all the flavors and textures you want. It’s just a well-designed sandwich in its inherent simplicity.”

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