Every time I go to New York, I try to visit at least one deli. I like the way they smell (garlic, vinegar, beef), and I like the way they feel (noisy, gregarious, busy).
Despite Chicago’s sizeable Jewish population, and the fact that we’ve not only had meat packing operations within our city limits but some major corned beef processors, our city has never had a strong deli culture.
No one, not even David Sax in his excellent Save the Deli, has come up with a plausible excuse for why Chicagoland lacks anything like the range and number of delis one can find in New York City or even Los Angeles. Chicago is smaller, of course, but even so, we don't have as many delis as it seems we should.
So, we must treasure those few we have, like Onion Roll.
For over fifty years, Onion Roll on North Avenue in Oak Park has been operating a “delicatessen and restaurant,” which in later years has shown a clear emphasis on the latter.
With a front counter that over the years has become less full of stuff, it’s the side restaurant at Onion Roll that seems to get most of the action, and the action is comfortingly predictable. The bagels are from New York Bagel and Bialy, arguably the best source in the area, and the menu lists deli regulars like salami omelet, lox, chopped liver, pastrami and, of course, Reubens.
Reubens are not hard to make, but I’ve never made one at home, usually because I frequently seem to lack one or more essential ingredients – rye bread, sauerkraut, corned beef, Swiss cheese, or Thousand Island dressing – each of which is required for this classic sandwich.
“Could I get my Reuben on an onion roll,” I asked my server, figuring this was something that, at Onion Roll in fifty years, had been asked loads of time. My server looked at me as though I’d asked her to shine my shoes before lunch, and warned, “Well, they won’t be able to close it,” so I quickly rejoined, “Well, on second thought, I’ll just have it the way you usually serve it.” She seemed relieved.
“Our Famous Reuben” is usually served open face, which makes a lot of sense. One unfortunate step in the evolution of the New York corned beef sandwich has been that, starting around 1975, it started getting bigger and costing more, resulting in an expensive sandwich the girth of which was simply too big to fit in one’s mouth, and the volume of which was way more than an average stomach could reasonably be expected to contain. The Reuben at Onion Roll sidesteps such unfortunate developments by becoming something like finger food, with four portions mounted on two slices of rye, each cut in half, with the cheese thoroughly melted and a thin layer of kraut between cheese and meat.
This plate comes with fries (I asked for them “crisp,” and I heard the server shout to the chef, “Gimme those fries well done”), along with a shot-glass sized cup of Cole slaw (you don’t come to a place like this for the vegetables).
One drawback: the Thousand Island dressing is also served in a small side cup. I’m sure, though, that if I’d asked, they’d probably have smeared it on the rye bread before cooking. Probably.
It’s not at all surprising that The Onion Roll has been around for half a century. It’s a local treasure.