Monday, December 23, 2013

Milwaukee Delicatessen Co. serves a Reuben with a side of history

Posted By on Mon, Dec 23, 2013 at 3:48 PM

click to enlarge If you want Russian dressing, ask for a different sandwich at the new Milwaukee Delicatessen Co.
  • If you want Russian dressing, ask for a different sandwich at the new Milwaukee Delicatessen Co.


Many famous dishes were invented in the kitchens of hotel dining rooms. The best known is probably the chilled concoction of fresh apples, celery and walnuts first created in New York City's Waldorf Hotel (before it merged with the adjacent Astoria Hotel in 1897); the first eggs Benedict also came from the Waldorf kitchens. London's Savoy Hotel created Peach Melba for opera star Nellie Melba in 1893, and many culinary historians insist that chicken a la king was the brainchild of William "Bill" King, a cook at the Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia.

And then there's the Reuben sandwich. One version of its creation holds to the story that a New York delicatessen owner, Arnold Reuben, was the first to combine corned beef, Swiss cheese, Russian dressing and sauerkraut on rye bread at his namesake restaurant in 1914. Other food historians insist, just as passionately, that a Lithuanian-born grocer in Omaha, Nebraska -  Reuben Kulakofsky - invented the sandwich (with the same ingredients) for his weekly poker game played in Omaha's Blackstone Hotel in the 1920s. The hotel later added it to the regular menu.

Jon Gerner, the managing partner of the one-month-old Milwaukee Delicatessen Co. at 101 West Ninth Street, isn't taking sides on this issue. The Milwaukee Deli, named for an actual business that operated in this space (originally Dixon's Bar) from 1908 to 1938, serves a very tasty Reuben sandwich that's carefully billed on the menu as a Milwaukee-style Reuben.

"In Milwaukee," Gerner says, "they use whole-grain mustard instead of Russian dressing."

At Kansas City's Milwaukee Delicatessen - now there's a tongue twister - a sandwich made with house-brined corned beef (the brisket comes from locally owned Boyles Corned Beef), Swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing is called a KC Corned Beef. Both versions of a Reuben sandwich are served on rye bread baked at the new Sasha's Baking Co. around the corner. Both new businesses are located on the retail level of the 19th-century structure that was home, for many decades, to the Cosby Hotel. It was one of those kinds of hotels - straight out of film noir - with the lobby up a flight of rickety stairs and, in the movies anyway, a chain-smoking grump staring suspiciously from behind the front desk.

Gerner has yet to discover if the Milwaukee Delicatessen (operated by Albert Ladzinski, who moved the business in 1938 to 11th Street and Baltimore) had its own signature sandwich in the first half of the 20th century. Vintage photographs of the interior of the building depict an attractive retail space with every bit of shelf space crammed with bottles, jars and cans of foodstuffs, many imported from Europe. The display must have been eye-popping to customers of the era, used to more basic offerings at the neighborhood grocery stores.

The most famous imported item currently served in the Milwaukee Delicatessen Co. is the pizza, prepared using the recipes from the popular Pizza 51 restaurants, both located on the southern side of the metro.

The Cosby Salad has yet to be invented.

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