Photo by Anne FishbeinAS MUCH AS I LIKE KHMER RESTAURANTS, AS MUCH time as I have spent stalking the aisles at Acres of Books or wincing through Iron Maiden shows at the arena, a visit to Long Beach sometimes seems like a thinly veiled excuse to swing by Joe Jost's, a fragrant corner of old Southern California, complete with liverwurst sandwiches, mustaches worn without irony, and frothing mugs of beer. Like Cole's in downtown Los Angeles and the Berghoff in Chicago, Joe Jost's is a place that seems hardly to have budged since Repeal, a testament to the honest, hard-won pleasures of the American afternoon.
For generations of Long Beach men — Jost's celebrated its 75th anniversary this year — the phrase schooner and a special, an enormous, overflowing glass of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a Polish sausage on rye, has been capable of inspiring Pavlovian frenzy.
Jost's anchors a neat, working-class Long Beach neighborhood centered on Anaheim Street, a straight shot from the massive aircraft plants and not far from the former naval yards, that has shifted from Iowa transplant to African-American (Snoop Doggy Dogg and Warren G grew up a few blocks from here) to Cambodian, but though the soul clubs and Khmer-scripted billboards have lately been giving way to signs advertising licores and zapatas, Jost's still feels like a solid, friendly slice of Iowa-by-the-Sea.
In the backroom, men play pool on tables that are older than your grandfather; high on the barroom wall, a baleful deer, wearing not one but two old Joe Jost's caps, stares down at the door. It wouldn't quite be correct to say that Christmas decorations are up all year, but then it wouldn't be correct to say that they are really all the way up even during the holiday season.
The bar actually has a decent selection of brew, including Guinness and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on draft, but there is something about the tradition of the place, the battered wood and the parade of foaming schooners, that makes the default choice of Pabst Blue Ribbon almost automatic.
Pickled eggs sit in a jar near the center of the bar, immersed in chile-pepper brine and practically glowing with neon-green radiance. (The egg jar is something like the holy of holies at Jost's — when a photographer asked to take some pictures of it, two bartenders hovered a couple of feet away, as if to protect the eggs from harm.) When you order one, it is served with a scattering of chile peppers on a bed of pretzel rods. Jost's claims to have served 6 million pickled eggs since it opened in 1924. Shell-on peanuts, roasted at Jost's each day and served in half-pound bags, are as fresh as you have ever tasted them, without the stinging rime of salt that coats ballpark nuts.
A liverwurst sandwich is probably not the most exquisite thing you have ever eaten, but it's a real bar sandwich, a solid 2 inches of pink, smoked liverwurst capped with a thick slice of red onion, smeared with strong mustard and clapped between two slices of sturdy rye bread — beer is to liverwurst what wine is to cheese. But it is the Special that is the basic unit of cooking at Joe Jost's, a steamed Polish sausage split down the middle, stuffed with a skinny pickle spear, then wrapped with onions, mustard and cheese in a single slice of rye, a tear-inspiring vision of purest Dad Cuisine.
Jost's intends to endure long into the next century: Check out www.joejosts.com.
This is the part, I guess, where I'm supposed to say goodbye, to wax elegiacally about how much Los Angeles has changed in the 15 years I've been writing about food here, and to become a little wistful about the Weekly family. I got my first byline at the Weekly, I met my wife at the Weekly, and there isn't a week that I don't fantasize about going back to work as a proofreader at the Weekly (although I understand that Weekly proofreaders are now expected to be able to spell ophthalmologist without looking at a dictionary). I am, in fact, moving east this week to become New York restaurant critic for Gourmet magazine: Goodbye, Dumpling Master; hello, quenelles de brochet! But I expect to spend quite a bit of time in Los Angeles still and will continue to write this column, albeit on a biweekly basis, into the foreseeable future.
2803 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach; (562) 439-5446. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only (but why bother?), $4$6. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Recommended dishes: the Special, pickled eggs.