Image of Rachel James holding a reuben sandwich posing beside the Rachel In Search Of Logo

Rachel In Search Of: The Perfect Reuben

Image of Rachel James holding a reuben sandwich posing beside the Rachel In Search Of Logo
Credit: Rachel Wente

COVID-19 restrictions are keeping restaurants from operating safely at full capacity and many have taken a financial hit. A March 2020 survey from the Iowa Restaurant Association found that 20 percent of restaurants were projected to close permanently.

One of the ways Iowa is supporting local business is through financial assistance. On January 25, Gov. Kim Reynolds allocated $40 million in federal CARES Act funds to restaurants impacted by COVID-19.

There is also the Iowa Restaurant and Bar Relief Program. Businesses that saw a gross decrease sale of at least 15 percent during April 1-September 30 in 2020 could apply for a grant of up to $25,000.

As a customer and advocate for small business, I wanted to explore some of the restaurants that were still kicking and I thought there was no better way to highlight these places than by celebrating my love of food.

You see, I love sandwiches but especially one particular sandwich. Sometimes, in the dead of the night, when sleep eludes me and my deepest thoughts bounce wildly around my brain like circus monkeys, one question finds itself resurfacing. What is a reuben?

I don’t know… honestly sometimes I think it would be easier to ask what isn’t a reuben sandwich? At least personally, I believe that the reuben sandwich is the superior sandwich. But, not all sandwiches are created equal, and so I’ve decided to go on a quest— a hero’s journey, if you will— to find the perfect reuben sandwich in Des Moines, Iowa. But before we do that, it is best we return to the basics and ask: what am I even looking for in a sandwich? And what does that mean when looking at the components of a reuben?

There are a couple of basic categories within it that I will be considering when judging and rating this sandwich.

The Bread: the Noah's Ark of Ingredients

Now I’m not gonna lie, I’m not a big bread consumer, but that marbled rye that’s usually part of a reuben, can make or break it. It is what everything else relies on and so it needs to be good. I have no preference of toasted or grilled or regular going into this.

The Meat (shredded, piled, etc.)

The corned beef of a reuben takes a certain amount of care. It tends to be very thinly sliced and either boiled or steamed. I honestly could eat this by itself like the monster I am.

A graphic breaking down the elements in a reuben: the bread, meat, cheese, sauerkraut, and thousand island dressing.
The make up of a traditional reuben sandwich. Credit: Rachel Hartley

The Middle: swiss cheese, sauerkraut, thousand island dressing

There’s a litmus test I call “the pull apart test” which describes how much I love cheese. I’m hoping for something that I can see gooping out of the sides. The sauerkraut is the game changer within a reuben. It must have a balance of crunch and the salt. Lastly, the thousand island is like the sunscreen of a reuben: you better be slathering that on. I don’t want to see a single UV ray.

Overall Presentation

I know they say don’t judge a book by its cover, but aesthetics matters in terms of food. A strong presentation can set apart a sandwich and help create well needed Instagram clout for me.

Price Point

Look: we’re in a global pandemic. We see that people are really struggling, including small business. So while I want to encourage everyone to support small business, I also want to make sure that this is accessible. Price point is going to have to be something I’m looking at.

Now let’s talk numbers and how we will rank these. Each one will be rated in the above categories on a scale from 1-5, and then we will take the averages of each of these restaurants to see who has the perfect reuben sandwich.

As for research, I crossed referenced all of these delis or restaurants by Yelp, Reddit, and Google Reviews. I have found the top five in the Des Moines area that have been recommended for reubens. These restaurants had to be local and places I could go financially support during these times. I thought it was important to highlight these places and their sandwiches.

We’ve got five categories, we’ve got five delis, but only one perfect reuben.

The Royal Mile: Faking British accents and a trip across the pond

Established in 2001, this little hole-in-the-wall adopts a British pub style and atmosphere. From the outside mural to the inside lined with art pieces and ornaments that give the place it’s homey feel, The Royal Mile is a trip to Europe without the hassle of flying.

As one of the many recipients of an Iowa Restaurant and Bar Relief Program grant, the restaurant got $25,000 in funds, which helped them stay open during the pandemic.

Known for their malts (over 100 single malt scotches… man I love a good malt), their fish and chips and their beer, I focus in on the golden monkey that is the reuben as we begin our journey here.

The Ranking, The Royal Mile

Gif of The Royal Mile’s reuben sandwich.
The Royal Mile, a recipient of the Iowa Restaurant and Bar Relief Program funds and home to a classic offering in terms of the reuben sandwich. PHOTO CREDIT TINA INTARAPANONT

Starting off, it was shredded corned beef, which had a nice salt to it. As for the middle, I personally wish there had been just a bit more cheese so that I achieved that gooiness factor I so wanted. The sauerkraut had a nice tang to it, it wasn’t overly runny or anything. Overall, presentationally it was packaged well and comes with a side of french fries (or as the brits call them, chips).

Cost: $11.00

Meat: 3, Middle: 3, Bread: 3, Presentation: 4, Price Point: 3

Hansen’s Manhattan Deli: Black bread makes an appearance and Rachel is never the same

With an NYC theme, even the Red Sox fan that is me could appreciate the design of Manhattan Deli. An open display feel, the sandwiches serve as the main attraction. Husband and wife duo Corey and Carey Hansen frequented the Manhattan Deli—originally Bassman’s Grocery Store, which turned into a deli in 1982—when they were younger. It was then rebranded to Manhattan Deli when bought by the Hagar family.

“And we saw it come up for sale and thought let’s do it,” Carey Hansen says. “Let’s buy our favorite sandwich shop.”

Through name changes and love stories and a global pandemic, some things are cornerstones… such as the reuben sandwich.

The ranking, Hansen's Manhattan Deli:

Gif of Hansen’s Manhattan Deli reuben sandwich.
The black bread on Hansen's Manhattan Deli reuben creates an in-depth flavour profile and positions them as a unique choice. PHOTO CREDIT RACHEL WENTE

So they, interestingly enough, have pickles on their rubens which is the first thing I want to note because I am a big fan of pickles. Manhattan deli offers two types of bread: the traditional marbled rye and then a black bread. For the sake of time, I am only reviewing one type of bread. It’s their black bread that sets them apart, so we will move forward discussing that. They steam their reubens and so while the bread is not toasted, because they drain their sauerkraut, the bread isn’t soggy. The black bread is a lot richer and adds more depth to the sandwich. Very generous with the cheese and gave that nice overall presentation. Inexpensive and fast.

Cost: $7.87

Meat: 5, Middle: 3, Bread: 4, Presentation: 4, Price Point: 5

Palmer’s Deli: Some like it hot (the inside of the corned beef, that is)

According to Patti Williams, manager of Palmer’s Deli located on Ingersoll, the business has been around for longer than 30 years. Started in Urbandale by Gayle and Carol Palmer, the duo purchased Rappaport’s Deli and moved it down the street to 73rd, marking the original location. From there, with just one other employee, some chicken salad and the sandwiches, Palmer’s deli was born.

The ranking, Palmer’s Deli:

Gif of Palmer’s Deli reuben sandwich.
Grill marks from use of the panini press make Palmer’s Deli a very aesthetic sandwich. Fully slathered in thousand island, this reuben is one fan of the sauce. PHOTO CREDIT RACHEL WENTE

When they put the bread on the panini press for me, I knew my life would never be the same. The crisp of the bread when you bite into it is a brilliant counter to the moist center of the other ingredients. Patti told me they have a saying where the thousand island sauce should touch every end, and they take that seriously. There were no dry corners here. Very generous with the cheese. Because they weigh their meat, the ratio of middle to meat is also even. Presentation wise, the grill marks make for a nice aesthetic.

Cost: $8.39

Meat: 4, Middle: 3, Bread: 4, Presentation: 5, Price Point: 4

B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli: Double the trouble with brother owned joint

Passed down from grandfather to father to sons Joe and John Brooks Jr., B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli has a long legacy. Starting in 1922, this restaurant has been in the family for ages. An old-school deli, this team even has a meat freezer and all the works of that classic sandwich love. And with the place’s age, it has survived global recessions, war, and COVID-19 as they near their 100 year anniversary. While a bit hidden, the personality of this place is hard to miss.

The ranking, B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli:

Gif of B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli reuben sandwich.
Inexpensive and quick makes B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli the working person’s go-to reuben joint. PHOTO CREDIT BRANDON WHEELOCK

He cut this meat right in front of my very eyes, so I knew I was getting something that was fresh. Thinly cut and measured, they cure their meats right in the back. This is put on a pumpernickel marble rye and then thrown on the grill. Slather on the thousand island and sauerkraut (deli fresh, not jar) and you’re in business. The meat really does the talking for the sandwich, both in terms of presentation and taste. Most inexpensive option and something you could just pick up on a lunch break.

Cost: $5.99

Meat: 5, Middle: 3, Bread: 3, Presentation: 3, Price Point: 5

Cooper’s on Fifth: From Craigslist to chomping down reubens

“I found this place on Craigslist for really cheap, bought it, opened up a restaurant,” owner Ryan Cooper says of the humble beginnings. “I’ve got about 30 years of cooking, 25 years bartending… I wanted to venture out on my own. Here we are 10 years later. And off this place has also sprung to Winchester and about to open The Blind Pig.”

The place isn’t slowing down for anything, including COVID-19. According to Cooper, the restaurant is still looking at 80 to 85 percent sales during this pandemic, including many people carrying out. But as the self proclaimed “old guy on the block,” what really interested me was their reuben.

The ranking, Cooper’s on Fifth:

Gif of Cooper’s on Fifth reuben sandwich.
Cooper’s may be on fifth but this reuben may be first in your heart. A more savory option, this seasonal item is the reuben in intense mode. PHOTO CREDIT RACHEL WENTE

They serve it on toasted bread that has a nice, garlicky buttery finish. The thousand island is more tangier than expected and seems to have less mayo flavouring to it. As for the meat, it definitely takes on a more savory edge and has rosemary undertones. Ryan told me that they locally source all of their ingredients, which I think is really important because supporting your local business is always a bonus. Price point wise, they are a little pricier than the ones that just offer reubens on their own because this one includes a side of crisps. It is also important to note that this is a seasonal item, and so you will have to track it down like a pokemon.

Cost: $10.00

Meat: 3, Middle: 3, Bread: 5, Presentation: 4, Price Point: 3

Judgement Day: In which Rachel pretends she’s a food critic

Graphic with the totals for each restaurant, in order, with Hansen’s Manhattan Deli winning at 21 out of 25 points.
After careful calculation, much meditation and many reubens... Hansen’s Manhattan deli edged out the competition by one point. Credit: Rachel Hartley

No parent likes to pick a favorite child, we all know they have them but pretend they don’t. Now, is the moment here I break down what I liked, loved, and only sort of dug about these reubens. We will add up those above ratings and discover the ranking of the century. No other top five list comes close to the importance of this one.

According to my search, the perfect reuben sandwich in Des Moines is at Hansen’s Manhattan Deli. With their distinctive black bread edging out the others by one point.

All of these local businesses offer something unique in terms of reubens and in terms of atmosphere.

There are many ways to support your own local business during this time. Order out, buy a gift card, or safely eat out once restrictions and vaccinations allow. Maybe the reuben isn’t what waters your mouth, but there is a quest for each one of you. I highly recommend supporting any of these establishments because while my search for the perfect reuben may be over, yours dear reader, is just beginning.

Camera & Editor: Rachel Wente

Camera: Brandon Wheelock

Camera: Tina Intarapanont

Featured Image: Rachel Wente

Graphics: Rachel Hartley