As you cruise through El Monte toward the car dealerships, past the taco stands, the Malaysian restaurant, the Vietnamese supermarket, Jolly Jug is the kind of place you gape at from your car, a relic from the days when the San Gabriel Valley had more duplicate-bridge parlors than Asian noodleshops, a souvenir from the time when it was socially acceptable to think drinking was kind of fun.
Above the restaurant, the sign soars in the shape of a cheerfully besotted king--or a mustachioed guy in a bowtie who's had one too many and is posing with his wife's tiara. There's even a motto: "Southland's Most Honored Sandwiches."
Inside, it looks like one of those '40s places that was probably redecorated in the '60s and again in the '80s, so the classic roadhouse feel is inflected by the kind of window treatments and Tiffany-ish lamps that might suggest a place with sprouts on the burgers and mango in the ice tea if it weren't for all the smoke in the air--at Jolly Jug, in tobacco-friendly El Monte, you can sometimes feel naked without a cigarette in your hand, even if you don't smoke.
It can seem like a palace of Lotto too, with Keno results flashing constantly on the corner TV and reams of entry forms on the tables where you'd expect to find paper-napkin dispensers.
But Jolly Jug is pretty much just a coffee shop, though a coffee shop that has Miller on tap, creditable patty melts, and any number of sandwiches that include thinly shaved roast beef and gobs of melted cheese. The Spencer steak sandwich is the sort of thing you might find at an American-style restaurant in someplace like Spain, griddled slices of meat, a little rarer--and tastier--than you think they might be, tucked into a roll with sweet mayonnaise. Jolly Jug is also liberal enough to include pastrami in its definition of a club sandwich.
But what better time than the day after Thanksgiving to contemplate the specialty here, dip sandwiches with gravy all over them--heavy, 40-weight, tan gravy that clogs arteries, glues your tongue to the roof of your mouth, subsumes both bread and meat into mere condiments to the ooze. It's a sandwich you wouldn't contemplate in August, but which may seem oddly appropriate to the crisp winds of the season.
Jolly Jug's "Most Honored Sandwich" is less a variation on the Kentucky hot brown or the morning-after hot turkey sandwich your mother used to make at Thanksgiving, than a hi-cal version of the French dip sandwiches served at old-line L.A. places like Cole's and Philippe's: a crisp, light French roll sliced in two, dipped in gravy and stuffed with thinly sliced beef, pork or pastrami. It's perhaps not a sandwich worth a drive from Torrance, but might be worth considering when you're in the neighborhood.
Maybe you could become a regular, like one guy who doesn't look as if he's moved from his booth much since Ike was president. After he left one day, the waitress held up the mostly empty sugar dispenser that was on his table, and shook it like a maraca by her ear.
"It was full when he came in," she said, "and he's like this every day. If some doctor ever cuts that customer's vein open, it won't be blood that comes gushing out."
* Jolly Jug
4264 N. Peck Road, El Monte, (818) 444-8425. Open daily, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday-Saturday to midnight. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Full bar. Lot parking. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $9-$14.