Sandwich Review: Madison's Grill

"The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources" -- Albert Einstein

As a meal, the humble sandwich gets no respect. Often it's just meat and cheese thrown between two slices of bread, dressed with a bit of mayo or mustard.  In this form it takes less than a minute to prepare, and it will probably be eaten with less thought than scratching an itch or tying your shoes.  Given that, why spend time and money going out for a sandwich?

Well, yes, given that. But as James Beard said, "Too few people understand a really good sandwich." In my opinion a really good sandwich is one that looks simple, but lingers in your memory for days, maybe months. If you were at sea with nothing to eat but raw fish, a "really good sandwich" sandwich would haunt you during dreams, taunting you with the idea of crisply toasted bread, or the aroma of melted cheese, or the tang of a spicy mustard.  A good sandwich has nothing to hide but its back story, bursting with corned beef and sauerkraut, leaving you wondering how it came to be on your plate.  And that's why I was at Madison's Grill for lunch on a Thursday afternoon.

I'd heard a lot about Madison's Reuben Sandwich, some of it from the owners, Steve and Hiroko Brown. They said that patrons claimed their Reuben was the "best in town."  Ok, I'm not going to split hairs here: everyone has a right to their own opinion so it's impossible to say whether one sandwich is "best." But I needed to find out for myself whether this was a "really good sandwich."  Steve told me they cooked their own corned beef, stewing it with potatoes and spices until the flavor penetrates the meat. I wondered whether I'd be able to tell the difference.

Madison's is named for their street location (at 11th & SE Madison), but they also wanted to include a presidential theme, decorating in dark wooden tables and paneling, giving the restaurant a solid feeling. At the table across from me sat a convocation of five men who talked like they were somehow related to Portland's microbrew industry, earnestly discussing beer and beer distribution.  The rest of the customers were a mix of professional and blue collar workers.

After a bit my sandwich showed up.  The menu describes it as "marbled rye stacked with traditional corned beef, Emmentaler Swiss, 1000 Island and sauerkraut" with a side of fries for $9.  At first glance it looked like a nice typical Reuben, but then I bit into it. Not only could I taste the difference, I could see it. Instead of the usual wad of thin-sliced corned beef, this sandwich luxuriated in a gentle layer of tender meat.  It reminded me more of my home-cooked roast beef than something from a  deli.  This is the Reuben Sandwich you would make at home if you had a couple hours to simmer the corned beef, then another half hour to assemble and toast the sandwich.  So many times I've gone to a restaurant and ordered a Reuben and it tasted great, but it's obviously a restaurant sandwich.  Madison's has managed to make an authentic "home made" Reuben, and there's the secret: It's the sandwich you would have made if you only had the time.

And that's a good thing.  Two yardsticks I use for measuring a sandwich (or any meal) are ingenuity and authenticity.  The two goals are usually mutually exclusive: you can have an amazing meal, something that is so exotic you feel the need to evangelize your revelation; or you can have a meal that so epitomizes the experience you feel it should Microsoft should make it a standard desktop icon.  In this case, I'm clicking on the Madison's Grill Reuben Sandwich.

Still, there were a few things I would have tweaked: I prefer lots of horseradish with my Reuben. Luckily they have Beaver Brand horseradish on hand, so that was easily remedied. Also, I like my sauerkraut a bit more vinegary than most people -- I think it makes an interesting contrast with the cheese and the 1000 Island dressing.  But overall it was a hearty sandwich, with fries, and a calm relaxing atmosphere.
So, if I'm ever stranded on a desert island, I'm sure Madison's Reuben with be one of the sandwiches that come to haunt me during my raw fish dinner. It's an authentic Reuben, and a "really good sandwich."
Madison’s Grill & Catering
1109 SE Madison St. Portland, OR 97214
Lunch 11am - 5pm daily
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