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Beef Battle 

Two top spots for corned beef go head to head.

Pierogies and brats may grab all the ink, but corned beef is an equally beloved Cleveland icon -- especially judging by the sparring it prompts among fans of competing delis. We recently hit the road to assess some new contenders. Though our findings may not end the war, they will arm you with ammo for upcoming skirmishes.

First stop, Mister Brisket (2156 South Taylor Road, 216-932-8620), Sanford Herskovitz's longtime specialty butcher shop in Cleveland Heights. In July, Herskovitz expanded the family business to include a carryout sandwich counter, featuring everything from barbecued beef to rich Romanian pastrami. But the real draw is the unconventional corned beef, which Herskovitz bakes in a convection oven, rather than boiling as most of his competitors do. "This way, there's more flavor, it's juicier, and even people who thought they don't like corned beef are telling me they like this!" he claims.

Then it was off to Mentor, to Cohen's Corned Beef & Deli (9167 Mentor Avenue, 440-255-3354). Owner Harlan Penn took over the tidy little deli in May and now turns out a variety of homemade goodies, including latkes, matzo-ball soup, and a zesty corned-beef sandwich spread, goosed with mustard, mayo, and pickle relish. But here again, the main attraction is the corned-beef sandwiches, and sure enough, Penn boils the meat.

So, bake or boil: Does it really make a difference in taste? After an afternoon of noshing, we say yes, but it's a subtle one. And since both spots dish up an excellent product -- stunningly lean yet almost melt-in-the-mouth tender, and sliced into rosy panels sheer as silk stockings -- the "best" is a question of personal taste. For us, it's pretty much a draw. Despite Herskovitz's claim, we actually found Cohen's meat slightly more juicy -- but it was also saltier. While not as buttery, Mr. Brisket's baked corned beef offered a unique delicacy of flavor, with herbal overtones and a subtle tang.

In this contest, neither size nor cost is apt to be a tiebreaker. Ordered on rye, with mustard and Swiss, both sandwiches weighed in at around half a pound and stacked up nearly three inches high. Mr. Brisket's cost $6.50; Cohen's was a buck more.

Our advice? Try 'em both, then pick a side.

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