By the time you read this, Jimbo has probably cooked his last Reuben at Parke’s Place.
Jimbo is Jim Russell, the cook who has made the Reuben a Can’t Miss Dish at the landmark Preston diner on Route 12 for nearly a decade. He’s leaving Parke’s Place for a job in nuclear engineering, which is bad news for us Reuben-lovers. With luck, the kitchen will be able to imitate his masterful touch with corned beef and pastrami and carry on the most appetizing aspects of this deli classic without him. If it fails, it will be a huge loss, because Jimbo’s signature sandwich epitomizes comfort food at its best.
I put the Parke’s Place Reuben to the test recently against an opulent and glamorous opponent—the Chief’s Reuben at Birches Bar & Grill across the river at Mohegan Sun.
This was an incredibly pleasurable experiment, partly because the reuben is my favorite sandwich in the world and I got to eat two of them in one afternoon, and partly because the stark contrast in style proved there’s more than one way to make a great dish delicious. There’s a lesson to be learned here, about food and about life, you know: Different styles can produce the same success.
The Reuben at Parke’s Place represents the grandest tradition of simple, satisfying comfort food.
Slices of heavily buttered light rye bread, studded with caraway seeds, are browned until crispy, much like the exterior of a grilled-cheese sandwich. Swiss cheese oozes from the edges and forms, along with crunchy sauerkraut and a modest layering of Russian dressing, a bed for whichever meat you choose—pink pastrami, peppered on the edges, or a remarkably briny corned beef. I chose both. The corned beef (a Jimbo specialty) is cooked extra dark red. It crumbles, practically melts, in your mouth. The sandwich comes with sweet pickle chips and outstanding, golden-crispy fries. At $8.95, the price is right, considering how tasty everything is, but a hungry eater will clean the plate easily.
The Chief’s Reuben at Birches takes a completely different approach. Containing a virtual mountain of meat, it towers over the one at Parke’s Place in the style of a New York deli Reuben, if not a New York skyscraper. There’s a lot more to chew, and it’s a bit harder to chew as well—whether corned beef, pastrami, or both, the meat is less cooked and less tender, and gobs of stringy Swiss cheese encapsulate everything inside. The rye bread is soft and chewy as well. Sauerkraut and a sweet Thousand Island dressing round out this monster.
At $13, the Chief’s Reuben costs 45 percent more than its rival at Parke’s Place, but it’s at least that much bigger, too. A hungry eater is likely to take home half of it. It also comes with more fries, which aren’t as crispy as the fries at Parke’s Place, a dill pickle spear, and a side of slaw. On the day I dined there, Birches was serving complimentary corn chowder with all lunch and dinner entrées, which turned the meal into a veritable feast.
Milky and creamy and piping hot, the appetizer contains beans and bits of asparagus. It comes with slices of focaccia bread glazed with sticky pancake syrup and two paper-thin sheets of flatbread, one salty, one not, to be used for dipping. The flatbread strongly resembles sheets of birch bark, and it seems obvious to me that Birches ought to call them “Birch Bark.” They can thank me for the free marketing advice with a lifetime of free Reubens.
Side by side, the Reubens at Parke’s Place and Birches Bar & Grill are works of art. The Chief’s Reuben is more expensive but a whole lot bigger. Everything about it is softer and chewier, while the Parke’s Place reuben is crispier and better suited for a quick comfort-food fix. Which one tastes better is a matter of personal preference, of course, but for me, I’d choose both.