“If a deli doesn’t have a Reuben sandwich, it’s not worth visiting,” my dad told me the first time I recall eating a Reuben. We were in a diner somewhere near Seton Hall University (where my father taught), and I was still little enough that I didn’t get my own. He cut a corner of his sandwich off for me, though, and I was hooked: the crusty bread, the Russian dressing, the kraut, the melty cheese, and the pastrami all so different from most of the food we ate at home, where my firmly 1970s-era, Italian mom ensured we stayed healthy with a steady diet of vegetables, grains, pastas, and the occasional fleshy meat course. This was a different story, this sandwich that my dad apparently ate during lunches at work.
I’m not Proust, seeking a simpler time via food. But that Reuben was so good that it remains a milestone in my head some 40-plus years later, the first time I recall a meal hitting all the notes in food that I most prize today: sour, salty, just a hint of sweet. It was my go-to at any restaurant I dined at, from my childhood in New Jersey to my youth in Indiana to when I moved to San Francisco in the mid-1990s. Then, one day about 16 years ago, I looked into a cow’s eyes and I couldn’t make peace with eating him and not my dog. Well, I didn’t want to eat my dog, so I stopped eating land animals. My Reuben days were over, until Wise Sons came to town.
Wise Sons, the new-school old-school Jewish deli, opened its 24th Street doors in 2012, after building its brand with wildly packed pop-up events in which founders Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman deftly evoked East Coast nostalgia without being gimmicky or theme restaurant-y. There was challah French Toast, matzo ball soup they warned would “not be as good as your bubbe’s,” and, remarkably, a vegetarian Reuben made with mushrooms where the meat would be. My Reuben train had, after a long absence, just pulled into the station.
According to Bloom, their menu “always had and always will have” this meatless version of the classic, which uses a mix of mushrooms to replace the corned beef (the original Reuben meat, Bloom maintains) or pastrami (the more ubiquitous option, in my experience). To Bloom, though, the meat almost doesn’t matter, as so much of the experience of a Reuben is the “nuttiness of the Swiss cheese, the texture of the kraut,” and the “bread’s got to be crunchy.”
“It relies on texture as much as taste,” Bloom says, and that’s one of the reasons Wise Sons’ decision not to go with a fake meat feels so smart. There are a lot of reasons to have beef with processed meat substitutes, but texture might be one of the main ones — that’s why Impossible Foods has so dominated the market, because it might be the version that feels most like meat in your mouth. But when Wise Sons began, “fake meat wasn’t where it is today,” Bloom says. But while he’s “curious now” about how their Reuben might work with the new breed of engineered faux flesh, he’s “not so curious that I want to replace it.” (In reporting this story, I tried a number of mock meat versions available in the Bay Area. I would not feel comfortable recommending any of them to you, dear reader, so I shall not.)
These days, Bloom says, “every deli has a vegetarian Reuben,” but they were the only place doing it when they began operations a decade ago. He says that while, sometimes, some folks will react scornfully when they see their meatless offering, most folks are cool. Complainants are “the same people that say, ‘What’s next, kosher kombucha?’” Bloom says, and like that I can see the griper’s face in my mind’s eye. “We just explain that we want to serve as many people as we can, and a lot of people,” even omnivores, “will take a meatless day here and there.”
While the Wise Sons Reuben is the gold standard in SF, another more recent offering is a strong contender for San Francisco’s vegetarian Reuben hall of fame. Violet’s Tavern, a two-year-old Outer Richmond restaurant and bar from the folks behind the Fiorella pizza mini-empire, rolled one out during the Great Impossible Meat Shortage of 2019, co-founder Brandon Gillis says.
The restaurant is known for its burgers, and its Impossible option has been a whiz-bang seller since it opened in the summer of 2018. “But when Impossible made that deal with Burger King,” they couldn’t get any, and they had to think fast and find another option for vegetarians.
Gillis isn’t as constrained by the “but my grandma did it like this”-ness that Bloom might be, so he had more room to play, starting with yuba. Yuba’s a soy product that occupies the territory between straight-up tofu and more engineered faux meats, coming from the skin that forms over heated and cooled soy milk. It’s typically dried then rehydrated, so making it is a bit of a process — but worth it, Gillis says, as it sears well. They took yuba and mixed it with a couple mushrooms, marinating it in soy sauce, a little maple syrup, and a spice blend to rev it up.
As opposed to going with a straight kraut, Gillis says that Violet’s opted to “lightly ferment” some cabbage in salt, making for more of a crispy slaw than a softer sauerkraut. “Kraut cuts through fattiness” when you’re making a Reuben with real meat, Gillis says, but with their alt-filling, they “needed crunch and texture” to play off the yuba and the “earthiness” of the mushrooms. They also added extra horseradish to their Russian dressing to brighten the yuba up just a bit more. Everything else worked as it has since the 1920s (the Reuben’s history is a whole other yarn), with Swiss and a “nice rye.”
Don’t head to Clement Street to order one now, though. Violet’s is one of the spots that completely shuttered when the pandemic began, slowly opening for delivery and takeout in the months that followed. The Reuben wasn’t on its reopening menu then, as it “travels poorly, especially with delivery,” Gillis says, obliquely referring to the rough treatment some apps give ferried food.
Now it’s open for outdoor dining, but the sandwich isn’t back yet because “right now, we have to really go with what sells,” a completely reasonable plan during this time of unprecedented stress on the restaurant industry. The Impossible Burger, with that marquee branding, is one of its best-sellers and is a lighter lift than the Reuben, with its many ingredients and days-long prep time.
But Gillis says that once things are closer to normal, the yuba Reuben (say that three times, fast) will return to Violet’s menu, because “once people order it, they get it again and again.” And, like Bloom, he has no problem calling his sandwich a Reuben, despite how different it is from what you would have found in a deli during the Depression.
“Look, I’m a New Yorker,” Gillis says. “I’ve eaten a lot of pastrami and a lot of Reubens,” and what makes a Reuben a Reuben isn’t just the meat, “it’s the sum of things,” so swapping out the meat or fixings isn’t a complete deal-breaker. “Reuben is the name of a sandwich that is a composition of things, not any one thing,” he says. “When you get everything together, do you still understand that this is a Reuben? If so, it’s a Reuben.”