On Saturday , Manny's Uptown Bistro is bringing four sandwich shops together - Fricano's Deli, Garden Spot Cafe, Manny's and NeWorlDeli - to see who among them makes the best Reuben, the sandwich most of us know as a union of corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing on rye bread. The American-Statesman's Matthew Odam will be one of the judges.
I won't have a vote on Saturday, so I held a taste test of my own, eating a Reuben from all four places in one afternoon, plus one from Little Deli to assert my independence. Katz's was on the original list of contenders, but all we can do is peek in the windows now that it's closed. Here they are in alphabetical order.
104 E. 31st St. 482-9980, www.fricanosdeli.com . Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays.
• Half Paul's Reuben, half Paul's Spicy Reuben ($7.25): I did a Jekyll and Hyde thing at Fricano's, asking for half with the standard Reuben package, half spicy. Both had the same über-mild rye with crusty bakery bounce, the same ticker-tape parade of sauerkraut and the same thick, marbled corned beef with personality, but not too much. But where the regular Reuben had a reserved Russian dressing and Swiss cheese, the spicy took off with pepper-Jack, purple onions, pepperoncini slices and spicy Rocket Sauce. It's the Jeremy Piven of Reubens, with a bigger mouth and better clothes than anybody in the room.
• Something extra: A cold pasta salad with helix-shaped cavatappi, cucumber, red pepper and blue cheese ($2.95). Good place to see ironic beards and University of Texas faculty.
Garden Spot Cafe
9415 Burnet Road. 835-1985, www.gardenspotcafe.com . Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays.
• Austin's Turkey Reuben ($5.89 for three ounces of meat, $7.59 for six): Next time, I'll spring for double meat. The three-ounce version was flat and hard on dark rye bread, with just a sprinkling of sauerkraut. The turkey was sweet and lean, the Russian dressing bursting with chopped pickles. When I asked about the Reuben competition, the man said they were doing a "special version" for that. Nowhere to go but up.
• Something extra: A cup of decent vegetarian chili ($2.65) with bell pepper, tomato and three kinds of beans, topped with cheese and onions. Ask for a taste of any of their housemade soups.
7101-A Woodrow Ave. 467-7402, www.littledeliandpizza.com . Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.
• Corned-beef Reuben ($7.29): This corner of the Shopping Center That Time Forgot puts a sunburst crackle on the seeded light rye bread of this sandwich, filled with corned beef not so much sliced as chopped to shreds, but with the right fat-to-lean ratio and a welcome touch of fermented twang to go with a light covering of feathery sauerkraut, thick Swiss and whispery dressing.
• Something extra: Foldable New Jersey-style thin-crust pizza by the slice.
Manny's Uptown Kitchen
9503 Research Blvd., Suite 650. 794-0088, www.mannysuptownkitchen.com . Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
• Corned-beef Reuben with chips, slaw or fries ($10): Just add an amplifying suffix to everything. Corned beef-ier, sauerkraut-iest, rye bread-amundo. The meat's cut so thick that you could put it on a turntable and hear my stepmother-in-law ordering at the deli counter in Florida. And so much of it. The rye screams, the kraut kicks and the whole thing talks with its mouth full. Run away from the runny cole slaw.
• Something extra: If you can't decide whether to have your Reuben with corned beef, pastrami or turkey, get all three on a slider plate for $8. Points off for making me read the word "Blinchilada."
4101 Guadalupe St., No. 100. 451-7170, www.neworldeli.com . Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.
• Corned-beef Reuben ($7.25): Not overly aggressive. The seeded light rye was a little greasy off the grill, with a thick slice of mild Swiss and a sweet dressing on both sides. A generous layering of super-lean, razor-thin meat with good brined flavor.
• Something extra: The people at the counter were beyond nice, especially after we exchanged a round of "pleases" and "thank yous." Simple courtesies so often overlooked, but that day they won me a free double shot of espresso in a thick cappuccino to go with sweet, fresh carrot cake ($3.95).
And the winner is … complicated
First off, five is not a big enough sample to declare "Austin's Best Reuben." But the picture, left, shows my rankings for these five from top to bottom, with my favorite on top and my least favorite on the bottom: Fricano's Deli, Manny's Uptown Kitchen, NeWorlDeli, Little Deli and Garden Spot Cafe.
But here's the thing about the picture. It's based on the halves of the sandwiches I ate at the shops. Fricano's won that round.
I brought the other halves home to photograph, then tasted them again to make notes. That's when I realized the first half of the Fricano's sandwich had been the "Paul's Spicy Reuben" side.
It's an awesome sandwich, but it's not a Reuben in the way the other Reubens in this lineup are. It's performance-enhanced, so I had to disqualify that half. The plain half was good, but not as good as Manny's, so please reimagine the photo with Manny's on top and Fricano's in second.
To be honest, I didn't want Manny's to win. Why? Because it's the shop that's hosting Saturday's little Reuben competition, and it's kind of like the prettiest girl on the block organizing her own beauty pageant. But you know what? She won, at least on my scorecard.
Austin Restaurant Throwdown
What: Four Austin sandwich shops will compete to see who has the best Reuben sandwich: Fricano's Deli, Garden Spot Cafe, Manny's Uptown Kitchen and NeWorlDeli.
When: 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Manny's Uptown Kitchen, 9503 Research Blvd.
Cost: $4, includes voting rights and a taste of each sandwich. Proceeds benefit a charity chosen by the winner.
Information: 522-3477, www.austinrestaurantthrowdown.com .