The Secret To A Perfect Reuben Is In Omaha — Yes, Really!

 In Food, Interviews

The blends of spicy-sweet, salty and sour flavors that all come together in a classic Reuben are instantly recognizable. Corned beef, the sandwich’s central ingredient, offers hints of spices like cinnamon and cloves along with black pepper and mustard, all tempered by the sweetness of brown sugar.

But then things get really complex.

Purists would argue a true Reuben includes rye bread, 1000 Island dressing, sauerkraut, and Swiss cheese—all of which have strong flavors of their own. Though this surprisingly crave-inducing combination has fans across the country, nowhere is it more popular than its hometown of Omaha.

You’ll find one of Omaha’s best Reubens at the oldest grocery store in the city, Wohlner’s Neighborhood Grocery and Deli. Its 1918 opening even predates the Reuben’s invention sometime around 1925. Legend has it that the popular sandwich spread quickly after it was first served as a snack during weekly poker games at the Blackstone Hotel.

Wohlner’s resident Reuben expert is Mike Schwartz, whose culinary heritage speaks for itself.

ALIVE: How did you get into the Reuben business at Wohlner’s deli?
Schwartz: I’m the owner—the third generation. My grandfather on my mother’s side started it. That’s where the name Wohlner’s comes from. I’ve been running it 35 or 40 years.

What’s the secret to a good Reuben?
Everything’s special—the bread, the sauce, the sauerkraut. That sauerkraut isn’t something we just get off the shelf.

What makes your corned beef special?
I get it cured from a company in Chicago. It’s not something just anyone can do well. Everybody cures it differently, with their own spices, and that’s the one I like best. Who it is, I won’t tell you! [Laughs.] There might be one other company in Omaha that uses their beef, but that’s it.

And what about the bread? It’s a marble rye bread. But a lot of it is the way you grill it. You need the cheese to melt just so. There’s a lot more to a Reuben than just the ingredients. You have to prepare it just right.

And I imagine the dressing recipe is also secret?
It’s from an old sauce recipe and it’s handed to the deli chefs. They don’t get to make it.

The Reuben business sounds very clandestine! You don’t want your competition to get any ideas, do you?
It’s something that’s competitive in Omaha. We get a lot of people coming in just for the Reuben.

There are some variations out there, like putting the fillings inside a dough pocket or using other meats like pastrami. What do you think about those?
I don’t modify my Reuben at all. If you change it, it can still be a good sandwich. But it’s not a Reuben.

What’s the best accompaniment for a Reuben?
A half sour pickle is really good with it. I buy them from a company in New Jersey. A lot of people like beer with it—but it doesn’t pair up with wine! [Laughs.]

Featured photo courtesy of Wohlner’s Neighborhood Grocery and Deli.

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