When it comes to reubens, it is a sandwich that I love unabashedly, unequivocally, and con mucho gusto. It has a few basic guidelines – sauerkraut, thousand island or Russian dressing, and rye bread. After that, there’s room for play with a smoky middle made of tempeh, tofu, Portobello, seitan, or thinly sliced vegetables. The tangy zip of the sauerkraut mixed with sweet and tart thousand island followed by pungent rye makes for a crave-worthy lunch affair.
When I visit a restaurant for the first time, if they have a vegan reuben on the menu I know what I’m ordering. They’re almost always a mouthwatering choice, and when they’re not, well, it’s like going to a concert of your favorite band on an off-night or spending a day at a spa where the massage therapist rubs a bit too indifferently. Even when it’s not as good as it could be, it’s still pretty awesome. So after these years of exhaustive research and soiled cloth napkins, I have narrowed it down to my top five reubens.
5. WaterCourse Foods in Denver, Colorado
While reubens made with tempeh and seitan are commonplace, WaterCourse opts for that meaty and toothsome fungi, Portobello. Chunks of smoky mushroom are topped with a mild purple sauerkraut made in house and a special sauce and served on grilled rye. (By default the sandwich is made with dairy-based cheese, but it can be easily modified.) The sandwich is a little lighter than most meaning there’s room for a side of mashed potatoes if the craving strikes you.
4. New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City, Iowa
Surprisingly enough, this isn’t the only reuben that comes from the back of a grocery store on my top five list. What can I say? It may not be as pretty as restaurant reubens, but when it comes to flavor, the people who work the deli know how to get it done. The New Pi’s Rockin’ Reuben is vegetarian by default but can be made vegan by asking for soy cheese or by doing what I like to do and asking for avocado instead.
They have a bakery on site, and so the marbled rye is fresh, soft, and beautifully swirled with color. The smoky tempeh works well against puckering sauerkraut. The thousand island made from Vegenaise makes for a sloppy mess of a sandwich; let’s just say it’s not one well-suited for a first date. (Then again, if you’re open-minded enough to have a first date in a co-op maybe you’re not fussed about such matters.)
Each sandwich half is wrapped in a foil pocket to protect the precious globs of kraut from falling out. This hearty sandwich could be shared, but after the first bite, you may not be feeling so generous.
3. Native Foods in Chicago, Southern California, and other locations across the country
When I heard that Native Foods added a reuben to their menu after I left LA, can I tell you how entirely disappointed I was that I’d missed out? Their Oklahoma Bacon Cheeseburger is legendary, and so I was longing to see what they would do with that quintessential deli favorite.
Thin slices of juicy seitan are piled on marble rye and then topped with Russian dressing, Native horseradish cheese, and sauerkraut that’s made in house. (Horseradish and sauerkraut? Yes, please.)
When it comes to the sandwich that wins my sawbuck, the Oklahoma Bacon Cheeseburger still places gold, but the reuben is a worthy option for second place. After finishing this indulgent masterpiece, my non-vegetarian friend and dining companion said, “This isn’t the kind of vegan food a person loses weight on.” With a satisfied smile and look reminiscent of afterglow I happily agreed, “No, it isn’t.”
2. Chicago Diner in Chicago, Illinois
After twenty minutes with the reuben at Chicago Diner, my head was bobbing, looking for the waiter. I was long past full, but the almost-sweet corned seitan kept me coming back for more. I couldn’t stop myself from taking the paper-thin slices into my fingers and popping them into my mouth for one last taste. Onions, peppers, sauerkraut, Thousand Island and non-dairy cheese are sandwiched between slices of marbled rye. (They also make a California reuben with white seitan. Next time, it’s on!)
1. Follow Your Heart in Canoga Park, California
When the owners of Follow Your Heart purchased the health food store in the seventies and decided to make the place meat-free, people thought they were crazy. The owners didn’t listen and instead went with the voices that told them to Follow Your Heart. The health food store and restaurant thrived, meaning they eventually had to move to their current larger location. By the time I went vegetarian, Follow Your Heart was an icon in the area, known for its eclectic and earthy café, and was the first meat-free restaurant that I visited.
Each bite of their reuben takes me back to those early days when I was figuring out what I was going to cook now that animal flesh wasn’t on my plate. On one of my first visits I bought their cookbook. After that I would drive the forty minutes to Canoga Park, eat in their restaurant, and then buy the ingredients to make the sandwich at home a couple more times that week.
Thin slices of wheat meat, sauerkraut, mustard, and Vegenaise are served on gargantuan slices of rye bread. The sandwich is vegetarian by default, but can easily be made vegan by requesting cottage-style tofu or their FYH vegan cheese. (I like to go with the cottage style tofu and choose their Love Plate, which is a half sandwich, soup, and a drink.) Just don’t ask them to add Daiya. They’re sensitive. 😉
There’s something very basic about their reuben in comparison to the other flashier sandwiches above, but in its simplicity, it still wins the top slot for me. As they say, I have to follow my heart.
Still hankering for more vegan reubens? Here are 13 vegan reubens you don’t want to miss.