Reuben, The Corned Beef Factory

Used to be that if you wanted a full packer-cut brisket, complete with point and flat, for say corned beef, barbecue, or pot roast, you had to head down to Lake Street to Ex-Cel Corned Beef before 3 PM on weekdays. Ex-Cel was a holdover from the Fulton Market district’s fading blue-collar milieu, when it was a place people went to work rather than drop hundreds of dollars on dinner and drinks. It wasn’t in business to sell retail, but the friendly coverall-clad workers would indulge you, disappearing through the swinging doors and reemerging with a bloody vacuum-packed hunk of fatty beef.

Sometime last year the company was sold and the new owners felt they didn’t have the proper licensing to sell individual briskets out the door, so if you had to feed a crowd you were stuck with those Lilliputian Vienna Beef briskets they sell at Jewel, which tend to dry out. The promising news was that the new owners announced a plan to open a cash-and-carry sandwich shop in front of the factory. Made-to-order Reubens, corned beef, and pastrami sandwiches from the preeminent brisket packer in the city sure seemed like a good idea. The redubbed Corned Beef Factory opened in January, replacing its drab industrial interior and exterior with an ersatz Disneyesque likeness of an old-timey sandwich shop. The hand-scrawled menu’s minimalism seemed promising too: just Italian beef and a hot dog in addition to the aforementioned sandwiches. Plus they installed a chipper cranking out fresh potato chips and, in the morning, “honey puffs,” aka loukoumades, little honey-drenched Greek donuts.

That Reuben pictured above looks all right, doesn’t it? Or does it? It’s certainly a mountain of meat between two slices of rye. Enough to power a weary produce jobber through a long shift. But I’m afraid it comes up short in the same way Manny’s corned beef does. I know, I know—you love Manny’s. But while Manny’s is certainly generous with the corned beef, it’s always terribly steamed out and dry. That seemed to be the case at CBF last week too. Maybe it was a function of my arrival late in the day or maybe they slice it too thin or maybe they’re using particularly lean brisket—or maybe it’s a combination of all three. Whatever the deal was, this particular $11 sandwich was a letdown, in no small part because the cheese remained unmelted, and there were too few scraps of kraut on top and way too much Thousand Island on the bottom. At least those problems can be avoided by asking for a little extra or a little less. The folks at the CBF seem accommodating anyway, willing to prepare off-menu combos like a Tom and Jerry’s (half corned beef, half pastrami) by request.

They’re so accommodating, in fact, that they’ve started selling those uncooked briskets over the counter again. And I’ve never had a problem with one of those.

  • Chicago
  • The Corned Beef Factory

The Corned Beef Factory, 1009 W. Lake, 312-666-2535