Grinder: that’s “sandwich” if you speak Massachusetts
3445 Olive Street, Lemon Grove
‘Ya-hooo! Drink Mountain Dew!”
I’m in a museum here. On a side street in Lemon Grove, looking at this ancient wall ad. I like the last line, too: “It’ll tickle yore innards!”
Next to it, Ted Williams is holding a bottle of pop. “Ted Williams says ‘Make Mine Moxie.’”
Museum? Sharon Jones is showing me her personal collection of stuff from the past 130 years. “This is an ice box,” she’s telling me. “And I mean ice box. You’d put the chunk of ice in this top box, and your food stays cool in the cupboard below. Came from a customer. Said he was going to junk it if I didn’t give it a home.”
“Time to eat!” says an old neon clock sign.
Danged right. I’m hot, hungry, and here for a grinder.
The logo. And the grinders really are generous
Stopped at the stand-alone cement block place on the edge of downtown because I noticed their sandwich board outside. “Grinder. Hot cheese and steak sandwiches.” And on the window: “Cold root beer served here!”
Grinder? Whatever. Inside it’s a sandwich shop, plus it has this quaint atmosphere of dolls, antique clocks, lace, old big-lip glass milk bottles, and lots of ancient Campbell’s Soup cans.
But the thing you notice when you head for the counter is the drinks cooler. It’s filled with root beers. “We have the largest selection in San Diego County,” Sharon, the owner says. “Sixty eight different kinds of root beer. All ice-cold.”
“Guess I’ll take one root beer, and the cheese and steak sandwich,” I say.
“Oh, sure,” she says. “With everything?”
She points to a plastic-covered sign on the counter. “All sandwiches include oil, vinegar, cheese, lettuce & tomato, olives, onions, pepperoncinis, salt & pepper.”
I nod. Next thing, I see the two ladies behind, Elaina and Mary, set to, hands flying at the back counter.
“We never measure,” says Sharon. “We just put lots of everything. Go through a 40-pound side of beef every week.”
I turn to the drinks cabinet. Which root beer to pick? The label I like best is called “So Duh!” but I end up taking “Dang!” a butterscotch root beer from Milwaukee. Costs $1.85. Pfssst! Its crown cap comes off satisfyingly at a wall-mounted opener under an old Pepsi Cola sign.
Elaina puts a steaming plate in front of me with my cheese, steak, and onion sandwich. Costs $8, but man, there’s so much of it. Great slabs of sliced beef steak, onions, green and red bell peppers, melted pepper jack. Wicked. Though, to be honest, I should have asked for a little hot sauce like Cholula. (Later, at home, when I get into the second half, I add it. Qué sabroso!)
Beef: they go through 40 lbs of it a week
The main thing is the steak strips are totally tender and the snake pit of onions and peppers makes it all juicy and lush. Generous? Couldn’t get beyond the first half if I tried.
And, seems law enforcement comes here. Alex Amador, deputy from the county sheriff’s department has swung by for a turkey, or maybe chicken sandwich. “We all come here; fire department, too,” he says. The turkey or chicken he swears by ($5.25 for half, $7.75 for whole) is the real thing. “I don’t like processed meat,” says Sharon. “So we roast our own.”
Cheapest? Vegetarian sandwich goes for $4.75.
The place has been open since 1972. Sharon and her husband were customers, then one day 15 years ago they heard the place was for sale. “We bought it that day. We didn’t want the sandwiches to stop. We opened on April Fools’ Day, 2000.”
Her husband died ten years ago, but her son comes out from Yuma on the weekends to help out. Her granddaughter Kiki, who’s 23, has been working in here since she was 10. And two more granddaughters who are, like, 10 now, bake the chocolate-chip cookies that are hanging for sale in plastic bags at the counter. Oatmeal raisin and coconut pecan. (You get two in a bag for a dollar. The girls keep all the money.) Even with the help, Sharon is one hard-working woman. “I work 12 hours a day, seven days a week,” she says. “It keeps me going.”
Now we’re in what was the antiques place. When it closed, Sharon expanded into it. She’s showing me this Hoosier — it’s a kind of sideboard from 100 years ago that includes things like a built-in flour sifter.
I have to ask about their name.
“So, what the heck is a grinder?”
Pre-fridge: Sharon shows century-old ice box
“That’s the Massachusetts name for sandwich,” Sharon says. “Maybe because Italian ship workers over there were always grinding away at steel hulls. Or Italian rolls there had crunchy crusts you had to grind with your teeth. Who knows, really? It’s just their name for it. Like hero, hoagie, wedge.”
I order up a “Godfather” sandwich for Carla to sample back at the ranch. I look at the ingredient list. OMG, how can you fit ham, salami, pastrami, roast beef, sausage, and meatballs into one sandwich? I order a half and pay $7.50. (The whole is $10.50.) Still, it’s a monster.
Of course I coulda had so much more. Like, their chili has just picked up first prize at the Western Round-Up and Chili Cook-Off. And that sells for $3, $4, and $5, a good deal if you’re hungry and broke. They make it every Sunday. Best day to have it? Saturday, when it’s had six days to mature.
Man, I come outside into the sun feeling like I’ve been in a time-warp. A real-live mom ’n’ pop curiosity shop kinda place.
Word to cookie lovers: oatmeal raisin’s world-class, but the coconut pecan is out of this world.
Prices: The Godfather sandwich (ham, salami, pastrami, beef, sausage, meatballs), $7.50 half, $10.50 whole; bologna, $4.75, half, $7 whole; eggplant parmigiana, $5/$7.50; ham and roast beef, $5/$8; meatball, $5.50/$8; steak and cheese, $8 (8-inch roll), $12 (12-inch roll); vegetarian, $4.75/$7; all sandwiches can be prepared breadless as a salad
Hours: 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (Monday to Thursday, and Saturday); 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Friday; 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Sunday
Buses: 856, 936
Nearest bus stop: Main Street at Broadway
Trolley: Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Lemon Grove Depot, Lemon Grove Avenue at Broadway