The Nebraska Reuben Sandwich: The American Experience on Rye

The 50 Plates tour continues with the Lithuanian-Nebraskan bomber

Summer is road-trip season, so we're taking a culinary tour of America. But because Portland is a city of immigrants from other states, we don't have to leave town to do it. We're traveling to 50 Portland restaurants to try one distinctive food from each state. Our 50 Plates tour continues with the Reuben from Nebraska, which joined the union on March 1, 1867.

The state: Nebraska is a solid participant in the brick-and-mortar patchwork of middle America: a football state, a steak-and-potatoes state, a corn state, a state with just one federal highway that goes east to west, like the sun—from Omaha to Lincoln to North Platte. Everybody's tall, it seems—from German backstock or beef hormones, who knows? But of course the interest is in the byroads. The plains states preserve strangeness: Almost 90% of its towns have fewer than 3,000 people and so one town's Czech, the other speaks Danish or Yiddish. Hell, there's probably a little town in Nebraska that speaks only pig latin. What a country!

The food: The almighty Reuben sandwich—rye, kraut, swiss, corned beef or pastrami, secret sauce—as purportedly invented by Lithuanian transplant Reuben Kulakofsky of Omaha, Nebraska in the midst of a fifteen-year-card game at the Blackstone Hotel in the teens and '20s. (See the unholy reuben-inside-hamburger Kulakofsky at Tilt in Sauvie and the Pearl, for an homage.) New York also claims the sandwich—there's an interesting and detailed examination of both histories here—but just at the gut level, the reuben is a sandwich not of an NYC deli but of the heartland. What the heck was cheese doing on that beef? And what's with the kraut? What is that, Thousand Island? The Reuben is the old-country Eastern European Jewish tradition gone fully feral in middle America, a sloppy mess of meat, cheese, pickle and mayo that never stays in the shackles of its rye bread for long. It is a deeply mongrel food, one of our cuisine's most truly American creations—Germans found it strange, the French found it even stranger. And at the bottom of the cockles of my heart, it is my favorite sandwich—my first love, anyway, which you never forget. My father's state is Nebraska, and to me Nebraska is where the sandwich was grown: shrouded in myth, taller than corn.  

Other dishes considered and rejected: Omaha Steaks, kolaches, Kool-Aid. And dear lord, where can you get a runza in this town? 

Get it from: Portland mainstay the Goose Hollow Inn (1927 SW Jefferson St., 228-7010, made its bones on its Reuben since even before its owner, Bud Clark, became mayor of Portland. They proclaim it the best Reuben in Portland on a sign over the bar, although they lifted the recipe wholeheartedly from the pages of Sunset Magazine. Well: it is large and sloppy and brimming with meat, a bastion of the old guard at a bar that is itself a bastion of the old guard. I ate it with pride.

Click on the map to see each state's distinctive food and where to get it in Portland.

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