The Reuben at the new Cottonwood Hotel lives up to the legend.
But if I’m honest, the Reuben — the Omaha classic that has its roots at this very spot, on the corner of 36th and Farnam Streets — is what I’ve most been looking forward to.
To food loving Omahans, the Reuben isn’t just any old sandwich. It’s ours.
Here’s the history, as I wrote many times for The Omaha World-Herald and other publications: Reuben Kulakofsky was one of a group of men who played a late-night poker game at the Blackstone Hotel in the 1920s. Charles Schimmel, the hotel’s owner, was in the game, too. Each time they played, the men would reserve a few nickels and dimes from each hand and call down to the kitchen for a midnight snack.
Bernard Schimmel, one of Charles’ sons and a chef at the hotel, would bring a variety of meats and breads to the men and they’d make their own sandwiches. Kulakofsky came up with a sandwich that everyone loved. The group called it the Reuben.
Charles Schimmel liked Reuben’s sandwich so much that he put it on the hotel menu. A listing from 1934, pictured above, says “Reuben Sandwich, 40 cents.” (As far as we know, this is also the first ever menu that features the sandwich, pre-dating claims that the sandwich originated at a New York restaurant.)
Bernard Schimmel wrote the recipe down, the exact way he made it in the kitchen at the Blackstone. The Junior League of Omaha preserved his recipe and instructions, and later published it in one of its charitable cookbooks.
I’ve made Schimmel’s recipe many times, and observe his rules to a tee. So I read with trepidation the news that the Cottonwood had fiddled with Schimmel’s exacting directions, switching the cheese and adding a house-made mustard. I wondered to myself: “What does a Reuben have any business messing with mustard?”
Friends, you may know this already, but when it comes to Reubens, I’m a purist in the same way others are about things like boneless Buffalo wings or ketchup on hot dogs. Don’t mess with greatness, right?
I’m happy to report, though, that the Cottonwood’s Reuben is fantastic.
The $16 sandwich employs just a hint of mustard, which works to balance the heavy richness of the rest of the ingredients: shaved corned beef, tangy sauerkraut, Gruyere cheese (instead of the traditional Emmental) and creamy Thousand Island dressing, all grilled to a perfect sear on pumpernickel rye. It comes with a side of French fries.
I had a hard time even detecting the mustard, and may not have known it was there had it not been on the menu. The cheese, like the original selection, is understated and melts wonderfully, sinking into the meat and onto the bread.
The sandwich is otherwise a virtual carbon copy of the classic: super hot, crispy bread, deliciously cool corned beef and mild kraut. I particularly appreciated the dark rye, which many modern Reubens exchange for light rye. The heaviness of the bread always tastes better to me in combination with the sandwich’s savory fillings.
We devoured our sandwich.
I’ve eaten a lot of Reubens, and let me tell you this: Omaha might have a new king to wear the city’s best crown. Try it and let me know what you think.