Lili sits at the table, a PB&J sandwich to one side, a pile of crayons, colored pencils, construction paper and scissors in front of her. On the other side her parents, Mike and Giovanna, are enjoying sandwiches and conversation. Mike is also enjoying a glass of beer. These are among the reasons we’re all here, and why you need to understand Rule #1: The Stuffed Sandwich is not a bar.
The Stuffed Sandwich describes itself as a “sandwich deli and brew pub”. Sam and Marlene Samaniego started the business in 1976. In a time when Coors was considered an exotic beer, they served Moosehead and St. Pauli Girl. Marlene now has nine taps and around 700 different bottled beers. The tap beers are arranged around a common brewer, region or type of beer, and change every month. I cannot account for the entire country, but in Southern California the Stuffed Sandwich is regarded as the first to celebrate and serve the craft beer movement. When you enjoy a fine IPA, saison or lambic, it all started here.
The Stuffed Sandwich website states, “Please note that The Stuffed Sandwich is a sandwich shop that sells a lot of beers. It is not a bar.” This leads us to Rule #2: The Stuffed Sandwich is a community. I was introduced to “The Sandwich” (as my sons call it) by my friend and co-worker Craig. Craig used to invite our entire company to join him here on Thursday nights, and many of us did. The company went belly up, the co-workers moved on, and Craig moved to Detroit. I found myself on Thursdays with a bunch of new friends I didn’t realize I was making. It turns out the Sandwich has lots of different groupings that meet up on different days and times, and Marlene knows them all. Thursday night is an eclectic group from all over Southern California, with no obvious commonality other than a general friendliness. I also found the Sandwich is a great place to bring my 12 year old sons.
When you walk in, you first meet a figurine of a chef holding a sign stating, “I SUPPORT THE BEER NAZI”. The Sandwich is Marlene’s domain, and it runs by her rules. She keeps the Sandwich family friendly. If she says you’ve had enough, that’s it, “No beer for you.” You can’t order beer without ordering food first. Drunkenness and debauchery are not tolerated. I have my own rules which Marlene honors: I never have more than two beers, and I don’t want to be served any beer over a certain alcohol percentage. The Sandwich is a family-friendly place, and Marlene is vigilant to keep it this way. My sons love that they are treated as equals by the adult regulars, and find their conversations valued by all despite their youth. On Thursday nights, all kids are treated this way. My sons also appreciate that Marlene makes a terrific chocolate malt.
The idea of 700 beers may seem overwhelming, hence Rule # 3: Dispose of your presuppositions about beers and let Marlene be your tour guide. Marlene knows beer. Never underestimate her knowledge. Even the 20 year Thursday night Sandwich veterans trust her guidance. On your first visit, she will ask what you like, and then suggest something you’ve never heard of. Take the beer she suggests. Because I have trusted her wisdom the last few years, Marlene has gradually expanded my tastes and enjoyment. Now she gently ribs me at times that I enjoy a variety I never would have when I first arrived.
The Sandwich is lean operation, and Marlene keeps her dishwashing to a minimum. This brings us to Rule #4: Bring your own glass. You can bring your own glass, you can buy a glass from Marlene (she always has a selection of discounted pint glasses), or you will drink your beer from a paper cup. Marlene also has cases on the back wall full of reasonably priced glasses if you don’t fancy the bargain selection.
So, you may ask, if the Sandwich is not a bar, how’s the food? The sandwiches are huge and Marlene is picky about the quality of her ingredients. The breads are top notch and the meats rival any high quality deli. I’m particularly fond of the corned beef, which is the leanest and tastiest I’ve ever tried. Marlene makes a top notch chili as well, although I suggest ordering it with mozzarella, as it is normally served with a slice of American cheese on top. The Sandwich is also well known for its homemade polish sausage. It’s Sam’s recipe, and hot. It’s closer to a fiery chorizo than anything from Poland. Which brings us to Rule #5: Try the “Love”.
Love? It’s the “juice” left over from the making of the polish sausage. It’s a black, spicy, little cup of heaven. It’s perfect for dipping French fries, and I find it delightful to drizzle over my corned beef. My friend and Thursday night regular, Joe, prefers to have his French rolls dipped in it, au jus style. It also mixes well with ketchup and kicks up the chili. However you use it, it is magic.
The Stuffed Sandwich is a special place, and Thursday nights are a special time. Marlene has an amazing memory and knows almost all of her customers by name. Don’t be afraid to come alone, you’ll be invited to sit with us. That’s how it is on Thursday night.
The Stuffed Sandwich is tucked in a strip mall at 1145 E Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel, CA 91776. Blink and you’ll miss it.