Melted provolone bridges the gap between halves of this smoked ribeye cheesesteak.
“Try our smoked ribeye,” read the small, hand-painted sandwich board sign on the sidewalk out front. And if there’s any hand-painted sentiment more likely to win my attention, I can’t think of it.
3445 Olive Street, Lemon Grove
Which isn’t to say that it stands out. Not any more than the word Grinder, raised in in bold red letters on the sign over the door. Nor the word Antiques, spelled in the same color, though different lettering, over the neighboring storefront. On closer look, you can see the faded markings where that one used to read, “Don’s Antiques,” back when the small, commercial duplex used to house both businesses. But the antique shop has long since closed, and the whole thing taken over by this ribeye smoking sandwich shop.
Grove Grinder never bothered to take down the antiques shop sign of its long-since departed neighbor.
It seems fitting enough, though. Grove Grinders is something of an antique itself. The sandwich shop has been here, putting meats between bread, since 1972. That’s too young to have lived through a pandemic before, but long enough to have built the solid customer base necessary to survive one. Despite its tiny, off-Broadway location, on a block shared with an exotic pets store, pawn broker, car wash, and tobacco shop, customers of all stripes continued to show up in a steady trickle while I did my usual food writer schtick of taking photos, deliberating over the menu, waiting on my order, then taking more photos.
While doing so, I also noticed the sign in the window proclaiming, “Cold root beer served here,” and boy it wasn’t kidding. Grove Grinder keeps something like four dozen different varieties of bottled root beer in its coolers, plus multiples of sarsaparilla, cream soda, and soda flavors I never knew existed, such as strawberry, coconut, and pomegranate. But root beer is clearly the focal point of the collection; there’s even a poster board mounted on the ordering counter, where customers can add their votes to which obscure root beer brands are the best.
A single shelf of root beer brands in a cooler filled with dozens of them
A count of hash marks shows River City and Sparky’s root beers currently tied for first place, while Rat Bastard’s and Sea Dog each trail by only a handful of votes.
How grove Grinder customers have ranked their favorite root beers
But we were there for the sandwiches: each served hot or cold, on a choice of 8- or 12-inch white, wheat, rye, or onion roll, and ranging in price from 6 to 12 dollars. Call them grinders, hoagies, or subs, it’s plain to see these are constructed with a pre-Subway ethos. Take the Ann Special, for example. The club sandwich variation is built with a combo of ham, salami, roast beef, and pastrami, yielding a stack of thick-cut deli meats, each one measuring something like an eighth-inch. The same goes for available cheeses: cheddar, swiss, provolone, jack, or — because this is a So Cal grinder shop, after all — habañero jack.
But it’s the house smoked ribeye that drew me in, and the smoked ribeye I’m still thinking about, days later. Really, it’s Grover Grinder’s version of a Philly cheesesteak, and you can order it with regular ribeye if you don’t feel like the subtle hint of smoke. But either way, don’t expect an “authentic” cheesesteak.
Most cheesesteak shops outside of Philadelphia practically trip over themselves trying to exactly emulate the original: they order Amaroso rolls, and likewise source thinly sliced beef from Philly-area purveyors. They’ll chop in peppers, onions, and mushrooms on request, but seem to keep strict controls on just how much beef makes it onto the sandwich, unless you order a double.
Expect thick slices of meat and cheese on your sandwiches, and thick slices of pickle.
Grove Grinder, on the other hand, makes the concept its own. The peppers, onions, and mushrooms were there, and I opted for the traditional provolone cheese. But stuffed beneath them, on the shop’s usual bread roll, was a generously thick stack of that smoked ribeye. These sandwiches effectively charge by the inch: $8 for 8 inches, $12 for a foot long grinder that I couldn’t honestly finish in one sitting. But given the chance to order again, I would still go large. It created one highly coveted leftover in my household.