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Mac's vs. Cecil's: The Reuben rumble

Reuben sandwich
Reuben sandwich

How far can a little greatness take you? Does one great scene make a great film? Does one song make a great album? Does one great ingredient make a great dish?

This is the conundrum we face this week. Behold the Reuben, the most delightful hot sandwich around. Each bite is alternately sour and salty, creamy and crunchy, cheesy and saucy. A good Reuben is not just one thing done well; it's a little bit of everything done right. But pop quiz, hotshot: What happens when one part of this Reuben is so stellar that it elevates the dish beyond its competitor's solid performance in every other category? What do you do? What do you do?

See also: Hilda's vs. La Loma: Chilaquiles cook-off

Classic deli reuben
Classic deli reuben

Venue: In the running this week are two unlikely competitors -- Mac's Industrial Sports Bar on Central Avenue and Cecil's Deli in Highland Park. Mac's is a fairly standard-looking bar on the edge of Northeast Minneapolis. Not far from Nye's and Surdyk's, it's a no-frills, black and concrete cavern with a few games, a good jukebox, and friendly, solicitous staff. Cecil's couldn't be more different. Occupying the spacious back room of a family style deli, Cecil's 1970s basement rec-room vibe explains why it's often filled with college students and retirees craving the flavors from their bubbe's kitchen. Be sure to pick up some hamentashen from the bakery on your way out. (We can't stress this enough. For G-d's sake, don't skip the hamentashen!)

Weigh-in: Dominating the discussion threads on Yelp, Chowhound, and TripAdvisor for the last few years, Mac's enters the fight as the heavy favorite. Yet Cecil's has been hanging around for a lot longer and it has its vocal partisans.

Round 1: The bread Shoddy construction can ruin any sandwich; it's tough to enjoy stuff that falls onto your plate or into your lap. A great sandwich needs a great foundation that will stand up to heat or cold without crumbling apart. Mac's uses a lightly toasted marble rye that keeps all the tasty morsels in place, but it's nothing special. Cecil's uses a dark rye with a sour complexity. Its substantial crunch comes from the grill.

 

Cecil's reuben
Cecil's reuben
Amy Dahlin

Round 2: The fixin's Sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and dressing: so simple to add, so easy to botch. Mac's doesn't misstep. Its proportions are hefty and its texture is fine, but its conservative approach to this part of the Reuben makes their sandwich less memorable than it should be. Cecil's kraut is sour, its Swiss stinky, and its sauce homemade. These are the accoutrements of a great sandwich.

Mac's reuben
Mac's reuben
Amy Dahlin

Round 3: The meat Notice how we keep suggesting Mac's is nothing special? Well, that's because every part of their Reuben is pretty average. Except the meat, that is. And man, Mac's corned beef is phenomenal: hand-pulled, thick chunks of corned beef more like the long cooked brisket from a Texas smokehouse. On the other hand, Cecil's corned beef is merely excellent. It's more like standard deli fare, thinly sliced salty goodness reminiscent of the samples they give you at Katz's Deli on Manhattan's Lower East Side right before you order what Meg Ryan's having.

The winner is... Mac's. Despite its venue, despite its bread, and despite its mundane fixin's, Mac's corned beef has enough flavor and star power to eclipse its shortcomings and emerge the winner by the thinnest margin yet.

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