Shanghai’s Best (& Worst) Reubens for St. Paddy's Day

By Sophie Steiner, March 8, 2024

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In anticipation of everyone’s favorite Irish beer and leprechaun-fueled excuse to drink (as if we needed one), we’ve rounded up a list of one of St. Patrick’s Day’s most iconic plates, the Reuben. 

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Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Reuben? St. Patrick’s Day?! We hear our non-American readers ask. Allow us to explain...

Although this sando’s origins are somewhat contested, the leading theory is that it was invented in 1920 by a Lithuanian-born Jew living in Nebraska – our eponymous hero Reuben Kulakofsky.

The story goes that Kulakofsky played a weekly poker game at the Blackstone Hotel, and, after ordering the same sandwich every week for nearly 15 years, it was finally added to the menu.

It garnered even more local fame after winning the National Sandwich Idea Contest, leading to March 14 being declared Reuben Sandwich Day in Omaha. 

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Shanghai Reuben from the now shuttered Le Daily, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The two immigrant groups customarily living side by side (and sharing an affinity for all things corned beef and cabbage), Irish immigrants to America then started the tradition of making corned beef – a meat purchased from their Jewish butcher neighbors – part of their annual St. Paddy’s Day celebrations, splurging on a protein that, at the time, was considered a luxury. 

So, in reality, the Reuben is less of an Irish go-to, and more of an Irish-American deli favorite. But regardless of its beginnings, it is a longstanding St. Patrick’s Day icon that fuels the shamrock-clad masses, alongside green beer, Guinness, and Jameson shots. 

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Before we dive into all the Reubens Shanghai has to offer, we must first outline what makes a Reuben a Reuben. 

Reuben 101: The Building Blocks

Brisket

Regardless of if you lean corned beef or pastrami, the meat featured in a classic Reuben is sliced from the brisket – the weight-bearing lower chest of the cow that’s muscly toughness makes it an ideal cut for slow-cooking, brining, and smoking.

The optimal spice blend spans peppercorns to bay leaves, mustard seeds and cloves to coriander seeds and allspice. 

Sauerkraut

Chopped and fermented cabbage lends a sour, funky crunch to cut through the meat’s fatty folds and saline brine.

Swiss Cheese

Enough said.

Rye Bread

Level up with caraway seeds. Bonus for marbled rye. Toasting is key. 

Russian Dressing

A tangy shmear of mayo-based Thousand Island laced with horseradish acts as the glue that holds it all together.

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Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Now that we’ve uncovered its (not so) Irish roots, analyzed what makes (and doesn’t make) a sandwich a Reuben, and made each and every one of you hungry before we’ve even hit the body of this article, let’s get to the meat (and potatoes) of it! 


Commune Reserve

Ruben Sandwich (RMB88)

Followers of Stone Brewing and fellow craft beer lovers alike flock to Commune Reserve along Yuyuan Lu for more than just their extensive 30 beer tap list; the menu is an eclectic list of global comfort food favorites – chicken wings, sticky ribs, pasta dishes, sandwiches and burgers.

Bites that pair well with – shocker – a frothy mug of the good stuff. 

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Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

A prime example being the Ruben Sandwich (RMB88) – a sammy consisting of 48-hour brined pastrami, a slice of nutty Emmental cheese, a generous heaping of housemade kraut, and a friendly slather of Thousand Island, all resting between two flat-top toasted pieces of farmer’s bread. 

A classic take on this beloved delicatessen staple that goes down even better with a full-bodied Irish stout. 

Commune Reserve, 1107 Yuyuan Lu, by Fenggang Lu 愚园路1107号, 近凤冈路.


Dentree

Beef Tongue & Cheese Sarnie (RMB88)

Sustainability pervades every aspect of cocktail bar Dentree.

It is a planet-conscious powerhouse of a venue that brings together: Rémy Cointreau – an alcohol brand that helps lead the world globally in sustainable practices; Hope & Sesame – one of China’s premier cocktail teams that regularly secures a spot on lists like Asia’s 50 Best Bars and the like for their inventive use of ingredients and techniques to create memorable libations; and Oha Design – fitting out the space with sustainably-focused décor.

It’s Captain Planet’s all-star team. 

READ MORE: Sip on Ants & Silkworms at Sustainably-Focused Bar Dentree

In addition to an overtly inventive cocktail menu, there are some equally out-there bar bites, originally designed by chef Conrad Van Den Heever (see La Brise 523 and Highline below), who was formerly of the Muse Group, and followed the philosophy: “If it’s something that others might throw away, we want to feature it on our menu.” 

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The most substantial of the bar bite lot, the Beef Tongue & Cheese Sarnie (RMB88) is a play on the traditional Reuben, with week-long brined beef tongue, 30-day fermented sauerkraut, a Rémy Martin cognac and onion jam, and smoked cheddar – all stacked on toasted sourdough.

It's a 10/10 sandwich with deli fixings as reliable as Venus William’s backhand.

Dentree, Anken Air, #1, 465 Zhenning Lu, by Xinzha Lu 镇宁路465弄1号楼, 近新闸路.


Eat by Diner

Reuben (RMB128) & Reuben Fries (RMB118)

So, we did Shanghai a favor recently and took one for the team, rolling out of bed hungover one Sunday morning (ok, fine – it was already 1pm), and high-tailing it over to Eat by Diner.

READ MORE: Eat by Diner's New Brunch - A Hangover Cure on a Plate

Our impetus for the trip: the Reuben (RMB128).

Picture this...

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Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Five hundred grams of house-cured pastrami – that’s been brined for a week, then smoked, then steamed – is roughly chopped into curling meaty ribbons of sorts, dunked in beef jus, and haphazardly assembled atop toasted caraway rye. 

Next, there’s kraut. A lot of it. And an equally ghastly amount of Russian dressing.

Finally, the cheese. No shmancy cheese, just a thick cut slice of brandless American cheddar, one that melts in a glistening blobule (read: blob meats globule) and dribbles down the side of the sandwich in all its greasy, gluttonous glory. 

And this is just the size small sandwich.

Once a month, Chef Gabo will offer ‘the large sandwich’ – with double the meat (yup, just a casual kilo of pastrami to start your day), and double the toppings, atop the same rye. 

Do the math. We tried… and failed. 

Regardless – we’re in. 

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Continuing the Reuben onslaught, there’s also Reuben Fries (RMB118). Basically the same thing as the sandwich, but swap the carbs – bread for potatoes, twice fried, and sprinkled with flaky sea salt.

And then just a metric f*ck ton of Reuben toppings.

Yeah, we’ll take two and then immediately order a Didi to Huashan Hospital to get tested for Type 2 Diabetes.

Eat by Diner, 145 Wuyuan Lu, by Wulumuqi Zhong Lu, 五原路145号,近乌鲁木齐中路.


The Hai

Pastrami Reuben (RMB78)

Matty Waters is a name you might remember from when the now closed The Smokehouse x The Camel (RIP) was offering the tastiest pub grub in the city (yeah, that was Matty’s doing). And now, we’ve got his recent takeover of Bubba’s to look forward to.

READ MORE: BBQ King Ken Walker On Hanging Up His Spurs After 2 Decades

But in the interim, he’s done it again, this time at The Hai.

What used to be Kangaroo Bar – a neighborhood dive on Yongjia Lu – was acquired by new owners in 2020 and reopened as The Hai, a similarly easy-going watering hole with sports bar undertones.

For years the joint didn’t have a food license, and was left allowing carry-in or hosting pop-ups, but all that changed this past season when they welcomed consulting chef Matty on board to launch a slew of comfort eats that rival the best of ‘em.

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Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Aside from an impressive lineup of burgers, sandos, and other deliciousness between bread, there’s the standout Pastrami Reuben (RMB78).

A textbook example of this legendary American sammy sees house-cured pastrami, Swiss cheese, creamy coleslaw, Dijon, and a zippy spread of Russian dressing nestled inside toasted sourdough.

The poster child for the quip, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” this Reuben magnificently hits every note. 

The Hai, 35 Yongjia Ly, by Maoming Nan Lu, 永嘉路35号靠近茂名南路.


Highline

The Best Reuben Sandwich (RMB98)

It's that man again, Conrad Van Den Heever (seriously, he deserves a Magnolia Award for Services to Shanghai Sandwiches).

This time we're at Highline, where the man of the hour's menu draws inspiration from the Sunshine State, coupled with his South African roots.

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With a name like the Best Reuben Sandwich (RMB98), we had no choice but to verify that statement ourselves. 

The bulk of the Reuben is some righteous 48-hour braised brisket, shredded to match the texture of the homemade sauerkraut.

(And this, my friends, is the sleeper ingredient key to the optimal Reuben – a near 50/50 matchup of meat-to-kraut to cut through the brisket's fatty layers.)

Gooey Gruyère makes a showing, alongside a liberal lashing of mustard aioli with that ideal nip of – unexpected but very much appreciated – heat.

The sandwich itself is wholly stuffed – but not exploding nor imploding – and the rye toast holds up instead of just disintegrating under the weight of the sauce. 

Is it Shanghai's best Reuben?

Well it is now up against Chef Conrad Van Den Heever’s other Reubens, like the below mentioned Reuben Sandwich You Won’t Forget at La Brise 523... and we haven’t even made it halfway through the roundup of other Reubens around town.

So we can't make that call just yet – but this hero is surely giving us the necessary motivation to do so. 

Highline, 6/F, 282 Huaihai Zhong Lu, by Huangpi Nan Lu, 淮海中路282号6楼, 近黄陂南路.


La Brise 523

The Reuben Sandwich You Won't Forget (RMB88)

After creating sandwich heaven in numerous establishments across the city, Chef Conrad Van Den Heever (name ring a bell?) opened his very own restaurant last year, La Brise 523 in Sinan Mansions.

The concept is a fire-roasted proteins bistro with a modern Southeast Asian flavor-leaning menu. The kitchen sports its own firepit, where anything that can be grilled is roasted over open woodfire flames, tendrils of curling smoke adding a campfire aroma to the entire vicinity.

READ MORE: Chef Conrad Van Den Heever Fires Things Up at La Brise 523

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The Reuben Sandwich You Won’t Forget (RMB88) earns its name with thickly-sliced 48-hour braised M7 Wagyu chuck at the foreground that's been slowly smoked over lychee wood and bamboo charcoal, resulting in a 'Reuben-meets-steak-sandwich' of sorts – a detail we're definitely not mad about.  

A daub of basil mustard is found on the bottom slice of toasted sourdough, while a dollop of homemade Thousand Island is – you guessed it – on the top, coupled with pickled onions, fermented purple sauerkraut, melted Emmental cheese, and house pickles. 

Do note that this Reuben can currently only be found on La Brise 523's brunch menu, but will soon make its debut on the daily lunch menu, so plan your upcoming meals accordingly. 

La Brise 523, #4-6, 523 Fuxing Lu, by Sinan Lu, 复兴路523弄4-6号, 近思南路.


NYC Deli

Pastrami or Corned Beef Reuben (RMB48/small, RMB60/large)

After stepping into the NYC Deli storefront on Fujian Lu, we were ready to throw some serious shade. The décor… leaves something to be desired, like it hasn’t been updated since opening way back in 2007.

So we (wrongfully) assumed the sandwiches would be the same, representing a time in Shanghai’s not-so-distant past when the bar for 'reasonable' Western fare was a much easier hurdle to jump over.

Choosing between Pastrami or Corned Beef Reuben (RMB48/100 grams of meat, RMB60/160 grams of meat), we planned to order the more customary corned beef, but at 1.30pm on a weekday they were already sold out.

Not a good sign if you’re out of the meat for your top-selling sandwich and the customer seems more concerned than the staff. 

Alright, pastrami it is.

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Let’s begin with the Russian dressing. Unorthodox, we know – but a highlight that shouldn’t be overlooked. 

Boasting the perfect tang when compared to other über mayo-y iterations of dressings around town, NYC Deli’s Russian dressing is tops.

We welcome the borderline excessive portion too, as it oozes through the toasted rye’s nooks and crannies.

Check. 

Similarly, the kraut nails it in sour punch, crunch, and quantity.

Double Check. 

The pastrami showcases a peppercorn-forward brined spice, one that sets the groundwork for an archetypal Reuben, but the unrendered fat is where it all starts to go downhill; the inconsistently cooked meat ranges from barely edible to juicily tender, a game of Russian roulette we don’t really feel like playing between lunch bites.

No Check.

However, in a binary world, we are still awarding this sandwich a one (rather than a zero). All the promise is there – we just possibly came on an off day for meat texture. 

It wouldn’t be hard to convince us to swing through for a repeat visit… purely for hypothesis taste testing, of course.

NYC Deli, 100 Yejiazhai Lu, by Changshou Lu, 叶家宅路100号, 近长寿路.

NYC Deli, 209 Fujian Zhong Lu, by Hankou Lu, 福建中路209号, 近汉口路.


The Rooster

Corned Beef Reuben (RMB78)

Shanghai mainstay and neighborhood hangout, The Rooster relocated at the beginning of last year to the old sister-venue Perch's digs on Jiangning Lu.

But, have no fear – all of the insanely good deals (and good vibes) remain at this community-loved bar. 

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In addition to the consistent daily deals, Rooster also has a lineup of holiday specials, including the Corned Beef Reuben (RMB78), available daily on the lunch, dinner, and brunch menus throughout the month of March in honor of St. Paddy's Day. 

Beginning with the bread, the toasted sourdough is crisp at the crust but softens near the sandwich’s center, holding in the heft of meat, kraut, sauce, and all associated juices. 

And a huge shoutout is deserved for that heaving portion of zesty sauerkraut that cuts through the peppery outer fringe that perimeters each corned beef slice.

A healthy hit of stoneground mustard kicks up the heat, but left us peeking between meat pleats and under bread creases for the Russian dressing, an integral – yet missing – component to complete the Reuben package.

However, in Rooster's Reuben rendition, the tang arrives in relish form, still resulting in a balanced bite, and allowing us to overlook the absent dressing. 

The Rooster, Room 107, 445 Jiangning Lu, by Wuding Lu 江宁路445号107室, 近武定路.


Lounge by Topgolf

Reuben Sandwich (RMB68)

Shanghai’s favorite international entertainment company plates up more than just your average pub fare; Lounge by Topgolf provides an elevated alternative with an Asian twist – thoughtful fusion that ties in local flavors, making for a meal more interesting than your standard burger and fries. 

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The Reuben (RMB68) – a part of the lunch menu sets  sees five spiced beef layered with sauerkraut and a slice of cheddar on rye.

The fundamentals are all there, albeit basic in execution. Our main gripe is a lack of Russian dressing, or any sauce for that matter, a tart necessity to bring it all together. 

Buttttttt... there's a catch. We were just informed that the Reuben has been temporarily taken off the lunch menu in place of colder weather soups and stews until Shanghai warms up a bit.

So, hold your horses for a hot (cold?) sec, and save this Reuben rec in your back pocket until the city is flush with sunshine. 

Lounge by Topgolf, 2/F, Central Plaza, 227 Huangpi Bei Lu, by Nanjing Xi Lu 黄陂北路227号中区广场2楼,近南京西路.


Spread the Bagel

New York Reuben (RMB68)

Like a Reuben that attended private school on Long Island, Spread the Bagel’s New York Reuben (RMB68) meets all the Reuben pre-requisites, yet lacks any and all personality whatsoever. 

It’s just plain boring, is what we’re saying.

There are no egregious missteps; everything is unabashedly average, scoring an over-privileged, school uniform-clad C minus.

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The “brined beef brisket” is quite possibly done so in a water bath, even missing the basics of salt and pepper, which leaves the tender shreds of beef utterly tasteless. The fat is rendered, the portion is right, there’s just no panache. 

The sauerkraut weaves the same tasteless story as watery cabbage, and the dressing is essentially Kewpie mayo with a dash or two of spices. 

Even the bagel – which was promised to be served toasted – came out slightly warm (if that) and still completely soft, like our non-existent food boner for this omni-textured heartbreak of a Reuben. 

Spread the Bagel, 32 Yuyuan Dong Lu, by Changde Lu, 愚园东路32号, 近常德路.


Tock's

Reuben (RMB88/small, RMB108/large)

Tock's is a Shanghai institution. Shanghai's original Montreal-style deli opened more than a decade ago, and was the place all expats went to get sandwiches long before they were spoiled with so many choices.

Before Tocks, if you wanted a sandwich that both looked and tasted like one from home, you'd better make it yourself, sourcing insanely rare finds like *gasp* prosciutto and imported cheddar.

You got lucky when a friend smuggled some back in their suitcase.

It was the dark ages, folks. 

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Today, we are drowning in sandwich options, but Tock's Reuben (RMB88/small, RMB108/large) still holds a special place in our hearts.

Choose your meat – from the leanest crimson cut to an all-fat version guaranteed to clog your arteries – piled high with kraut, two pieces of provolone and three pieces of bread, slick with Russian dressing.

The Aussie AAA grade beef is prepared in the Montreal tradition, meaning it’s lovingly salt-cured for 12 days, smoked, and then steamed for hours so that even the toughest cut is broken down and melts between your incisors. 

Slim russet fries and spears of herbed pickles add a crispy backdrop, while vinegary coleslaw proves mayo is optional to make the picnic side a winner.

It's no Katz's Deli in NYC. And yes, the bread-to-meat ratio with the trio of slices is a bit off – just take out the damn middle piece, who needs it? – but it's a sandwich that has, justifiably, stood the test of time.

Tock's, 281 Maoming Lu, by Wujiang Lu, 茂名路 281号, 近吴江路.


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[Cover image by Sophie Steiner/That's]

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