I had lunch with Lou Christine last week. If you spend any time in San Miguel bars you may have seen Lou Christine. Lou is the guy in the hat. The guy in the ever present hat.
I’ve always wondered what Lou kept under his hat so, last week, I suggested we have lunch. And I suggested he choose a restaurant that he thinks is very good but doesn’t really get a fair shake in this town.
Lou chose Hank’s. More succinctly, Lou chose Hank’s New Orleans Cafe and Oyster Bar.
I was surprised at first. And then I thought about it a bit more. And I realized it was a good choice. I do go to Hank’s from time to time. And a few times more than that. But I never think of it as a place to eat. I only think of it as a place to drink.
I arrived at Hank’s to find Lou already perched at the round table. The round table is the first high top on the right when you enter Hank’s. It’s the round table where King Robert (aka Hank’s owner, Bob Thieman) usually holds court with his knights. I’d never sat at the table before. I’ll tell you it’s because I prefer sitting at the bar. Someone else might tell you it’s because I’ve never been invited. I thought if I’m going to sit here, I might as well take Bob Thieman’s favorite stool. The one just to the right of Lou. The throne. And I did.
Lou Christine of course had his hat on. It makes him look like a sports reporter without the press pass in the hatband. Or maybe a bookie without the mutuals ticket in the band. Lou looks a little like Meyer Lansky only a little more handsome. He looks a little like Leonard Cohen only a little less handsome.
Lou and I have a few things in common. Lou Christine, like Don Day, still uses terms like “20 large”, still uses words like “chow”, and still calls women “broads” (and before you send me…or Lou…emails, that’s a term reserved for only the highest echelon of women). Both Lou and I have been contenders at the sport of journalism but have never quite had our arm raised. And both of us are involved in trying to help the best restaurants in San Miguel make a little money.
By popular opinion, Hank’s is not only a place to drink but the very best place to drink in San Miguel. And for that I (and Lou Christine) give credit to Bob Thieman. As Lou and I sat there and discussed good restauranteurs and not so good restauranteurs, past and present, the conversation always came back to Bob Thieman. He is and always has been the champion at putting more rear ends on more stools in this town. And that and how much those wallets often located behind those rear ends are opened are how the very best restauranteurs are measured.
I’d eaten at Hank’s before. A few times. But I’d never made plans to eat at Hank’s before. I’d usually eaten at Hank’s because I’d forgotten to eat somewhere else. Or because I’d never quite made it to the place that I’d planned to eat. What food I’d had at Hank’s though I’d always had pleasant memories of. Perfectly prepared Oysters Rockefeller. A fat and juicy burger. And, thinking back a few years, the only terrine de foie gras in town.
Lou Christine heralded a few of his favorite dishes at Hank’s. And most of his favorites revolved around the bar’s…sorry, restaurant’s…New Orleans roots. But as fond as I am of Cajun and Creole cuisine, I somehow couldn’t get away from the soup ‘n’ sandwich lunch. Lou was torn between the onion soup and four cheese soup so we ordered one of each. Lou said I should try the Reuben sandwich and, as I’d had a lot of people tell me I should have a Po’ Boy at Hank’s, our second sandwich was a bow to the softshell crab version of the Louisiana classic.
Lou Christine is one of the few people I know in San Miguel de Allende who has a job. And I mean a real job. A job where the person really makes money. Lou has a few jobs actually. He is the director of sales, manager of advertising, vice president of accounting, chief financial officer and, for the last few hundred consecutive weeks in a row, employee of the week at San Miguel’s VIP Club.
And what does it mean to be a member of the VIP Club in San Miguel de Allende? In very simple terms, by paying 550 pesos a year, you get a VIP card that, with very little fine print, gives you 10 or 15% off at most of San Miguel’s best restaurants and about fifty other businesses. For someone that eats out and drinks out as much as I do that could mean paying for the VIP card in less than a month.
There are a number of accounts of the origin of the Reuben sandwich. Most of them give credit to New York as the birthplace. I think New York gets enough credit for enough things, so I prefer the one that gives credit to a place that usually only gets credit for a nerdy investor and grain silos.
Don Day prefers the Omaha version of the history of the sandwich where Reuben Kulakofsky, a Lithuanian-born grocer created it for the weekly poker game held in the Blackstone Hotel during the twenties. The players, who called themselves “the committee”, included the Blackstone’s owner, Charles Schimmel. Schimmel put the sandwich on the hotel’s menu, and, when a former employee of the hotel won a contest with the recipe, it gained national fame.
The Reuben is one of Don Day’s self-proclaimed world’s ten best sandwiches. But as simple as a Reuben sandwich is, it is very difficult to find a good Reuben sandwich and, until Lou Christine and I had lunch at Hank’s, I had almost given up on finding a good Reuben in San Miguel.
Just in case you have never taken the pleasures of a Reuben, it is a simple sandwich. It consists of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on grilled rye bread. And those ingredients are almost written in stone. And, as the old GM Parts ad said, accept no substitutes. Pastrami may not be substituted for the corned beef. Emmenthal or Gruyere may not be substituted for the Swiss. A kaiser may not be substituted for the rye. The only allowable substitution is Thousand Island for the Russian dressing but only when the Russian dressing is absolutely, definitely not available anywhere within a ten mile radius.
And one more thing. The Reuben sandwich is the only (and note the bold, underline and italics) dish on this or any other planet that allows the use of bottled salad dressing. Using bottled dressing on any other occasion shall be punishable by overdoses of Kraft Catalina on every salad consumed for a period of not less than 90 days.
What are most important about a Reuben’s ingredients are quality and quantity and it is here where Hank’s excelled. The meat was moist, beefy, a little fatty, lightly brined and thick (in fact I can’t remember ever meeting a Reuben that had too much meat). The cabbage in the kraut was only barely pickled (nothing worse than a vinegary Reuben). There was not one but two thick slices of cheese. The layer of dressing was as it should be, barely there. And the rye was nicely seeded, buttery, golden and a little crunchy.
Now I mentioned earlier that I could pay for Lou Christine’s VIP Card in just a month of savings on food and, of course, drink. But, truth is, I don’t own a VIP card. It might be because I’m afraid I might get the dreaded rejection letter: “I’m sorry, Senor Day, but you have been deemed ineligible for the VIP Card. May I recommend you reapply for the NVIP Card.” Or it might be because whenever you go for lunch, dinner, drinks, whatever and the other person has the card and you don’t, they feel sorry for you and pick up the check. Like Lou Christine did last week.
Thanks for lunch, Lou. Thanks for teaching me Hank’s isn’t just a place to drink. And thanks for introducing me to one very fine Reuben.
The VIP Card, can be purchased at BajioGo at Jesus 11, La Conexion at Aldama 3, or Solutions at Recreo 11 (the price for new members goes to $600 on January 1). You can find out more about the card including the restaurants that honor it at http://www.vipsanmiguel.com. You’ll find Hank’s New Orleans Cafe and Oyster Bar at Hidalgo #12 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.