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Grilling a Reuben sandwich is a matter of tradition and taste

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Once upon a time, inspired by a mild hangover and a Yelp review featuring a photo of a beautiful Reuben sandwich, two friends set out on a long walk to a west-end Toronto sandwich shop. But although the journey started with quixotic hope, it ended in near tears for, alas, the Reuben was toasted.

This mistreatment of the sacred sandwich is something that happens all too often – especially the farther away you get from New York, where the Reuben was invented just over a century ago. In fact, it's so often served wrong in Canada, it's easy to imagine that there are two schools of thought on the sandwich, that toasting a Reuben is merely a different style. So I (one of those two saddened friends) put the question to Zane Caplansky, Canada's foremost smoked-meat authority.

"If it's not grilled, it's not a Reuben," Caplansky says. "There's no debate. A Reuben sandwich is corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese and it's grilled on marble rye. And if you use Thousand Island dressing, that's an epic fail."

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It's not just a matter of tradition, either. Toasted Reubens are objectively worse, bone-dry and easy to grow bored with. The only reason to put down a grilled Reuben is if you just can't handle any more delicious grease, since the fatty corned beef and Swiss cheese warm up and meld together to form such a perfect, squishy, rich and melty mess.

Thankfully, a grilled Reuben is rare but not totally impossible to find in Canada. Toronto's Corned Beef House, Bailey's in Winnipeg and the Red Wagon in Vancouver all do it right. Caplansky's makes a similar sandwich, called a "Reubenesque," which swaps in smoked meat and coleslaw for the corned beef and sauerkraut. It's a combo he resisted putting on his menu for years, since it breaks his own rule – never put cheese on a smoked-meat sandwich, a deli tradition rooted in kosher food practices.

"When people ask me about that, I say, 'We're all defined by our hypocrisy,' " Caplansky says with a laugh. "I had enough requests for it that I had to do it. And now it's my second-most popular sandwich."

Which he serves grilled. Obviously.

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