The Big Cheese
Photo by Anne Fishbein
I drove right by Stroh’s Gourmet, a small corner shop on Abbot Kinney, my first time there. I called for the exact address, but the phone rang and rang. When I did finally find the place and go inside, I understood why nobody had picked up. The music was on loud; the two buoyant, good-natured young men on duty were busily slicing meats, assembling sandwiches, and all but dancing in the process. They were helpful, though, if a little distracted — making and selling the food, and selling groceries and cheeses on top of that, did try their capacities. That they were knowledgeable and cared about the products seemed surprising only because they seemed so fun-loving and, well, so male. At first I thought, rather stiffly, lucky for them the owner’s not around to see them having such a good time. But then, on a subsequent visit, I ran into the owner.
Jason Stroh is himself a young, hip, good-natured fellow. When I met him, he was on his way out to go surfing, but happy to answer questions: He learned all about cheese at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts; no, he doesn’t travel to select his inventory, but he has a good buyer; and soon, in early November when cheese season begins across the Continent, he will be expecting a large and diverse shipment from France. Clearly engaged in his vocation, Stroh might have gone on talking, but his surfing buddy kept popping his head in the door.
“Are the waves big?” I finally asked.
“No,” he said. “And I don’t care. I just have to get into them . . . and out of here for a few minutes.”
Since its inception, Stroh’s has had a following. In addition to the cheese case, a cold case of drinks (including large glass bottles of Badoit water, which are rare here and price-controlled in France) and a small selection of high-priced, premium groceries (chestnut honey, organic coffee, rustic pasta, anchovy paste, that sort of thing), there’s a third refrigerated case, displaying a large array of big, shaggy sandwiches, all freshly made and wantonly stacked in preparation for the hungry hordes — who do indeed come. Some days, I’m told, there have been lines out the door and around the corner for sandwiches. One recent Sunday, they closed early — out of sandwiches and out of the fixings to make more.
I didn’t see any lines during my visits, but I did see a lot of young men arrive on skateboards, or wander up with their dogs, or just amble in off the street. The shop, which looks as if it would cater mostly to Francophile matrons, seems to have, as its main client base, athletic and creative young men who know a great sandwich when they eat one.
That’s not to say Stroh’s doesn’t have its matrons, too, and older couples and all sorts of Venice types. Menu selections are equally varied — and Stroh’s will make anything to order. (Manchego and quince paste? Sure.) The sandwiches are all made on hearty La Brea Bakery breads. The prosciutto was especially good — and the prosciutto-and-butter sandwich on a French roll made me happy in a way I usually am only in Paris. Tuna salad, on split rustic bread, was served with high-quality white tuna that had a cool celery crunch. Turkey breast came on a big, flat rustic roll with Brie and lots of avocado. I loved a prosciutto with creamy sweet Gorgonzola, and a “slim jim” — a long roll of great, dry salami and tasty provolone. The only sandwich that didn’t spark my admiration was a dullish grilled vegetable with feta cheese.
Side salads are made fresh daily. A rice salad with big hunks of ham and fresh chunks of tomato and colorful peppers was a meal unto itself. Lighter was a juicy, red-cabbage slaw with raisins and nuts — an excellent accompaniment to any sandwich. Stroh’s also serves breakfast. Try the luscious ham-and-cheese/fried-egg sandwich on a crisped, buttered bagel. Malted pancakes looked very homemade (our batch even included that first motley “tester” pancake) and had an agreeable grittiness from the malt powder; but even with real maple syrup, they weren’t all that interesting — and with no butter, no garnish, and served on a paper plate, they seemed rather pricey at $5.25.
Don’t leave without taking home some cheese. The reggiano is organic and terrific. Aged Gouda, both cow and goat, are big-flavored and tangy in completely different ways: the cow, grainy and yellow-orange; the goat, ivory and vaguely sweet. There’s also a dreamy half-sheep, half-cow Hudson Valley Camembert that will happily tide anybody over until the fresh new cheeses hit in the next few weeks.
Stroh’s Gourmet, 1239 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 450-5119. Breakfast, lunch and dinner Mon.–Sat. 9 a.m.–7 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Sandwiches $6.44 each. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, MC, V.
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