You're entering the Soda Museum.
No, that's not right. It's more like a zoo, one where you can take the animals home. Galco's Old World Grocery in Highland Park specializes in rare, unusual and half-forgotten soft drinks.
It's basically an old-fashioned grocery store at the corner of York Boulevard and Avenue 57. Besides groceries, it sells submarine-type sandwiches and utterly 1950s-style spaghetti and meatballs in sweet tomato sauce. But about a year and a half ago, owner John Nese started collecting lines of soda. He now stocks about 200 bottlings.
In the beginning, Nese was simply protesting the big soft-drink wholesalers' practice of giving price breaks to major customers but not to little stores like his. He started seeking out smaller distributors and then rarer beverages. Customers made suggestions.
Now soda seems to have become an obsession. Nese, who looks a little like a 1950s sitcom dad, has clearly tasted everything he stocks. He cradles a bottle and says, "This is one of my favorite birch beers. It has a little wintergreen flavor, just a little, in the finish."
In addition to a number of birch beers and root beers and sarsaparillas and cream sodas, he has some ginger ales from parts of the country where they really like their ginger ale to be gingery. Blenheim's Ginger Ale even has an extra-spicy variety with a red cap. "It took four of us to finish the bottle," says Nese ruefully.
He also has a number of cherry pops, such as Cheerwine (tangy, very foamy) and Kentucky Nip (rich cherry flavor). He has Red Rock Cola, a brand that's actually a year older than the most famous cola, and Dr. Wells, which has a prune flavor like the original Dr Pepper.
He has plenty of regional favorites, like Green River, Grapett and AJ Stephans Cherry Lime Rickey, and a number of old pop brands you might have thought were no longer made, such as Nehi, Nesbitt's, Dad's and Frostie. And Delaware Punch, a Concord grape soda brand owned by Coca-Cola but no longer bottled in this country. Nese imports it from Mexico, which is why the label reads "Refresco Delaware Punch."
He even sells Moxie, the legendary New York gentian-based soft drink that's been around since 1884, when it was marketed as a "nerve food." It starts out tasting like a cola and then develops an astringent edge. "It's actually pretty good," says Nese loyally.
Not all the sodas are old-timers. Galco's stocks Slim Jones sodas from Canada with very peculiar labels. "They'll put any photo you want on the label," says Nese. And hemp devotees may be interested in a butterscotch-flavored hemp soda.
More recently, Nese has started collecting unusual beers with old-timers like Pabst, Schlitz, Schaeffer, Grain Belt and Acme California Ale. He has beers from Vietnam and China and most European countries, but oddest is an American brew, White Moose, with a soft-drink heart; it's a chocolate-flavored beer.
Galco's Old World Grocery, 5702 York Blvd., Highland Park. (323) 255-7115.