Is there possibly a better sandwich than a classic, juicy Reuben? From the tangy Russian dressing to the to the pastrami, it literally drips of delightful excess between two slices of rye bread. Except, all too often the dressing and melted Swiss cheese is needed to cover up the clear flagrant violation that is supposed to be the star of the sandwich: the pastrami.
On its best days, pastrami sports an alluring peppery crust with a powerfully robust meaty flavor towards the center. The texture should be soft and slightly chewy from the lack of fat, in line with the great barbeque brisket you may have once had in Texas. The easiest way to bring down the beauty of the Reuben is dry pastrami with no character.
Every day is a spectacular day for the pastrami at The Refuge, a San Carlos Belgian beer bar and restaurant that happens to major in the art of pastrami. Recently we stopped by the new Menlo Park branch to examine the pastrami merits and it lived up to the high standards of the original -- or might even surpass them.
It's best to probably share this not-exactly-diet-friendly sandwich, but it's not impossible to finish solo, kind of like the time you polished off one of those infamous six-foot-tall Carnegie Deli pastrami sandwiches. While you can opt for the pastrami on rye with just Swiss cheese and mustard, or as the "Toasted Slaw #19" (a Reuben with cole slaw instead of sauerkraut and non-melted Swiss cheese), you really want the real deal, oozing-with-joy Reuben ($17).
The Refuge uses only 50 percent of the actual pastrami they cut from carefully trimming away sinew and fat from what they call "the heart of the navel," an area just below the brisket. After being trimmed and rubbed with the pepper-heavy spice mixture, the meat gets steamed for several hours to its near-melting consistency. Then the meat seems to tenderize further by absorbing juices from the Russian dressing, sauerkraut, and melted Swiss cheese. Together between the toasted rye, here is an example of both a top tier Reuben and top tier pastrami. It's a bit a of a messy experience but thoughtfully composed enough that your eating area won't be a lake of Russian dressing topped with a pile of pastrami escaped from the rye bread's grasp.
Don't ignore the cured semi-sweet pickles that come with the sandwich, the unsung cleansing foil to every Reuben's extravagance. For the sandwich-averse, the pastrami comes also on a chopped salad or as the healthful partner to a burger or atop cheesy garlic fries called "Goofy Fries."
Of course it would be wrong to ignore the Belgian beer portion of The Refuge. The Menlo Park branch sports 24 taps and hundreds of bottles. This is the perfect spot to get acquainted with fabled names like Kwak and Moinette.
As enjoyable as a St. Bernardus can be, the spotlight is on this excellent pastrami that elevates the Reuben to seldom seen heights. It has to be a candidate for one of the most noteworthy sandwiches in the Bay Area.
1143 Crane St., Menlo Park; (650) 319-8197.
Also at 963 Laurel St., San Carlos; (650) 598-9813.