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King of Beers 

Sam Samaniego and his 700 bottles of beer on the wall

Wednesday, Jul 5 2006

“Tell me what you want to try,” said Sam Samaniego, gesturing toward his bank of beer-filled refrigerators. “Then I’ll tell you what you’re going to drink instead.”

I asked, I think, for something hoppy and Belgian. He handed me a bottle of Green Flash India Pale Ale from San Diego instead, which was prelude to a magnificent Kopf Weissbier and the punishingly hoppy Stone Ruination ale.

“There is only one way to do things around here,” he said. “My way.”

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At the Stuffed Sandwich, owned by Samaniego and his wife, Marlene, Sam’s word is Scripture.

I first stumbled into the Stuffed Sandwich about 15 years ago, when the editor of this paper and I were conducting a survey of every restaurant and food shop on Las Tunas Drive for the Los Angeles Times food section. It was an interesting period on Las Tunas. Practically every cuisine in Asia was represented in one mini-mall or another, from Taiwanese to Indonesian to Malay; a few of the old-time Mexican restaurants were still hanging on, and an almost-first-rate Bavarian restaurant stood right in the middle of the strip, serving trembly slabs of smoked pork shank and leberkase to what seemed like an unending parade of soccer players. Some of the restaurants we found during those weeks — Yazmin, Golden Deli, Wahib’s Middle Eastern — are still among the best of their type.

But the one restaurant we both dreaded going into, even more than the Brunch Bag or the ominously named Hong Kong–style coffee shop The Other Taste, was the Stuffed Sandwich, a dark corner joint whose logo depicted a stylized hoagie spurting juices like an R. Crumb floozie, whose windows were dominated by beer signs and macramé, whose customers, staggering from the restaurant at 3 in the afternoon, tended to look as if they’d slept in their shirts. Laurie and I flipped a coin. She got Stuffed Sandwich; I ended up with the Cookie Pop Shop.

The Stuffed Sandwich, though, turned out to be a wonderland of beer, a meeting place for hopheads from all over Southern California, a deli that just happened to feature more than 700 kinds of beer, listed neatly by country of origin — and cold. I don’t remember what we ate, but I drank something from Scotland, a Berliner Kindl Weisse and something called Dead Cat Ale, as Sam, a former beer-company employee, expounded learnedly on the tang of hops, the mellow nose of old Anchor Steam Xmas beer, and the differences between Budweiser made in St. Louis and the Budweiser brewed in Van Nuys. He didn’t like Budweiser much, but he was upset that the local distributor refused to sell him the superior Missouri-made beer.

I’d largely forgotten about the place — there may be more great food within five minutes of Stuffed Sandwich than there is in any comparable suburb in the country. But the World Cup matches have been finding me in a lot of beer-oriented pubs lately, mostly at 7 in the morning. And when I finally made it to the new Stuffed Sandwich, a larger, more crowded patio restaurant a mile east of the original, I remembered why I had liked it so much in the first place. The menu is a fizzing, breathing encyclopedia of hops: monastery ales beyond counting and Moza Bock from Guatemala, smoky rauchbier from Germany and sour Fantome from Belgium, Fat Dog Stout, Old Speckled Hen and Bud Light: probably 700 beers in all, plus an equal number that Sam may pull from the back if he thinks you are worthy of the honor — although more than likely he’ll just slip you a bottle of Bosteels Tripel Karmeliet instead. You probably won’t complain. God help you if you ask for a Heineken.

If you ask for a lager, Sam will tell you that you’re wimpy. If you ask for a triple-strength ale, he will make sure that somebody else is driving. If you head toward the beer taps before ordering food, he will insist that his restaurant is not a bar, tapping his pencil under the Reagan busts on top of the coolers until you finally order a liverwurst sandwich. If you want a proper glass for your ale, you will have to bring one yourself (as many regulars do) or drink from a miniature Dixie cup. Sam does have a handsome assortment of beer mugs for sale. I’ve never gotten around to trying one.

For $11.50, you can get an assortment of thematically linked draft beers served in tiny plastic pill cups, and ponder the subtleties between different porters or lagers yourself. The current flight, Christmas in July, contrasts nine holiday beers, the most delicious of which was either the syrupy Belgian Val-Dieu Noel or the herbal, complex Sierra Nevada Celebration that you can pick up every winter at Ralphs.

Eventually, you will get around to the food, which runs toward tomato-paste-intensive spaghetti, overstuffed submarine sandwiches and the last Freedom Fries available in the Greater Los Angeles area. He makes the Polish sausages himself, and they must be about 50 percent superhot pepper by weight.

“Do you like to see your customers scream in pain?” I asked.

“Of course,” Sam said. “The louder they scream, the better I like it.”

Stuffed Sandwich, 1145 E. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, (626) 285-9161, Open Tues.–Sat. 11 a.m.–8 p.m. Beer and wine — to put it mildly! Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $10–$18. Recommended dish: beer.

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