“Have you ever been to Eisenberg’s?” This question from my daughter, Alison. “Shannon and I went after the gym the other day,” she says. “Best Reuben I’ve had in a long time. You should check it out.”
Yes, I should – for a couple of reasons: Eisenberg’s is an iconic New York sandwich shop and I – being a sandwich-oriented human – should indeed check it out; secondly, just hearing the word Reuben sets my taste buds atwitter – sweet/salty meat piled with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, slathered with Russian dressing on grilled bread – what’s not to like? Eisenberg’s motto, printed on their T-shirts and cards is, “Raising New York’s cholesterol since 1929”. No kidding.
Eisenberg’s, despite its name, is not a Jewish deli. There are no salamis hanging from the ceiling. And what self-respecting Jewish deli would offer – with pride – a Tuna Melt, which is the single worst excuse for a sandwich since the Earl invented the form back in the 18th Century. A Tuna Melt takes already fully cooked tuna and cooks it again under a grill until it’s rendered as tasteless and hard as cardboard. And then they put cheese on it. Cheese on fish is an abomination.
Eisenberg’s is – passionately, stubbornly – what it has been since it opened in 1929 – a first-rate New York lunch counter. Which is not to say that it doesn’t also have good deli. Their hot pastrami is justifiably famous. And that leads me to the Reuben.
My first visit was last Tuesday. I figured I’d go early – around 11:30 – to beat the mob. It worked – I got a seat at the counter, two stools up from the cash register, which is right where I wanted to be – in the middle of the action. Eisenberg’s draws a lot of types who get as much pleasure holding forth about the food as they do eating it. So, close to the register – the domain of Josh, the owner and sage – is the place to be.
“You have no chicken salad,” holds forth a customer to Josh. “Why does nobody make a good chicken salad any more?”
“Too much trouble,” says Josh with a shrug. “I would have to bring a man in special – an hour before anybody else. We don’t need it.”
“Chicken salad that’s been sitting around since the morning, you don’t want to eat anyway,” says the customer.
I’m loving it. Eisenberg’s is New York – the décor, which was actually from 1929 until the roof fell in – the customers, who are tummlers and fressers in the great New York Jewish tradition. I’ll translate:
A tummler is a person who likes to mix it up with people, schmooze, entertain; a fresser is an eater, a feeder, a grazer – the Yiddish word for gourmand, perhaps.
The waiter offers me a menu, but I know what I want. This turns out to be a big mistake. “I’ll have a Reuben and a diet soda,” (the latter so that I could keep up with my weight-loss program). If I had looked at the menu, I would have noticed that the Reuben could be ordered with either corned beef or pastrami; I much prefer pastrami; what showed up was corned beef. My fault.
All I can say is that the sandwich was beautiful, perfectly made and presented – and I didn’t like it. The corned beef was a little tough to the bite; the taste was non-descript, which is a really awful thing to say about any salt-cured meat. I left half of it on the plate. It wasn’t until Thursday that I experienced the true pastrami Reuben experience and it was worth the second visit. Eisenberg’s corned beef is not Eisenberg’s pastrami.
There are a few facts about a great Reuben that I’d like put forth:
1. A Reuben sandwich is not Vegan. I’m fairly certain about this.
2. It must be made with pastrami – unless you want it to taste less good. God made pastrami and sauerkraut so that they could mingle.
3. It shouldn’t be piled so high with meat that you can’t eat it without the whole thing falling apart. The idea of a sandwich is that you can deliver the goods to your mouth in a tasty way without the use of a knife or fork. That’s a sandwich. If you pile it up too much and everything falls on the plate, it’s not a sandwich; it’s a mess.
4. You might want to add a little mustard. This is a matter of taste, but I have found that a little squirt of mustard, delicately injected between the pastrami and the sauerkraut, is a beautiful thing.
5. This is sacrilege, I know, but I could easily do this sandwich without the Swiss. Americans have a penchant for putting cheese on top of everything. In this case, the Swiss cheese adds a lot more visible grease without adding much else.
The sandwich delivered what I was looking for. I Hoovered it. The pastrami was first rate – as good or better than the famous delis – and the sauerkraut was properly seasoned and prepared. Excellent, actually. And the bread was toasted just right. This is big. When you bite into it, you want to feel that soft, greasy little crunch – nothing hard on the surface that cuts or bruises your mouth. The Russian dressing – which could seem like an odd addition to smoked meat and kraut – turns out to be a thing of genius. Its unctuous sweetness draws the sandwich together and makes it more than just the sum of its estimable parts.
Afterward, I took a photo with Josh, who is a bit of a star-fucker (I mean that in the nicest sense of the word). But what self-respecting New York lunch counter doesn’t have pictures of faded celebrities on the wall? It’s traditional.
Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop
174 5th Ave
New York, 10010
Michael Tucker is an actor and author whose third book is the recently published Family Meals: Coming Together to Care for an Aging Parent. You can read more about his food adventures on his blog Notes from a Culinary Wasteland.
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