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Happiness is pickled eggs at a 100-year-old bar in Long Beach

Joe's special without the bread at Joe Jost's in Long Beach.
Joe's special without the bread at Joe Jost's in Long Beach. (Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

I like to make up fantastical stories for people I see at dive bars. I can entertain myself for hours, subsisting on nothing more than sips from a sweating glass of vodka soda and my imagination.

The divey-er the bar, the better. In a dim room that’s always night, the $3 that I pay to see a cover band made up of the owner’s brother, nephew and their neighbor is well worth the price of admission. Is the woman winking at the drummer between sips of her Chardonnay his mother, girlfriend or principal?

Dive bars are a special breed of special, where most of the people I meet have lives far more interesting than mine and far more interesting than the ones I could ever imagine for them. It’s a world that exists, here, right now, for me and no one else.

My current favorite is Joe Jost’s, the nearly 100-year-old (August is the centennial) bar in Long Beach. I am late to the Joe Jost’s fan club by decades, but regardless, I’m a current member.

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A friend introduces me to the bar on the walk back to our cars after lunch in Cambodia Town. He utters the words “pickled eggs” and “100 years old” and, despite the plate of lok lak and the bowl of rice noodle soup we just finished, I can’t resist.

It’s just after 2 p.m. on a Monday. The afternoon sun is shining through the dusty windows and there's a cheery atmosphere to the day drinking at Joe Jost’s.

Without a free barstool or open seat at one of the scarred wooden tables, we find an awkward sort of half-table that reminds me of the ones from junior high with the chairs attached. It’s probably meant for two but three of us squeeze in.

The customers are mostly men who look like my late grandfather, crammed elbow to elbow gulping schooners of golden beer and shoveling pretzel sticks and neon pickled eggs with real gusto. The 1972 Rolling Stones shirt on one man in the corner most likely was purchased at the actual concert and not an Urban Outfitters.

A moose head shares real estate with a surfboard on the wall. There are bottles and bobbleheads behind the bar and dozens of framed photos of sports teams, men with cars and surfboards and plaques of undetermined origins. That’s just the front bar. In the back, there are pool tables and pinned-up calendars with women in bikinis.

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There’s a line to order, but the bartenders are efficient. The couple in front of me buys a hat from one of the dozens on display. They’re tourists who heard about the bar from a friend who recently moved to the area. Could they also buy a shirt?

I ask the bartender if every Monday at 2 p.m. is this busy.

“Sure is,” he says. “It’s always busy.”

I order a Joe’s Special, the first thing written on the chalkboard menu. It's a makeshift sandwich with a pickle spear nestled into a split Polish sausage and a slice of cheese on two pieces of rye bread smeared with hot mustard. Then I look around and ask what’s in the paper bowls in front of every other patron at the bar.

“It’s the Joe’s Special without the bread,” explains the bartender. “Like a charcuterie board.”

Here, the term charcuterie board is more of a state of mind. I order one of those too.

The Joe's special from Joe Jost's in Long Beach.
The Joe's special from Joe Jost's in Long Beach. (Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Another bartender starts chopping up a sausage with a thin white-handled knife that looks like the dollar-store one I lost in my college dorm room. He piles the sausage rounds onto a paper bowl filled with pretzel sticks. He slices two pieces of white cheese and adds those to the pile. Then comes a squirt of mustard, a disc of red onion and two pickle spears. He hands the plate to the bartender who took my order and starts on my sandwich.

“Do you want a pickled egg?” He asks. He can tell it’s my first time.

I do.

He uses a slotted spoon to fish an egg out of a tub that looks like it once held individually wrapped candies at a pharmacy. He throws a few banana peppers into my bowl, then shakes some black pepper onto the egg before handing it over.

I Google the bar while I wait for the food and find an L.A. Taco article letting me know that the bar goes through more than 450 pickled eggs a day. That seems about right.

The root beer tap the bar is known for isn’t working, so we order cans of Barq's. The two specials and three sodas cost me $14 before tip, and the entire exchange takes about two minutes.

I use a pretzel stick to stab a sausage, dunk it into some of the mustard and crown the meat stick with a piece of cheese. Am I doing this right?

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The mustard is the kind that singes your nostrils and leaves a tear in your eye. I appreciate that the pretzels are fresh and salty. The egg is nothing profound, firmer than I’d ever cook an egg but oddly addictive in texture and tang. I'm starting to understand why this place has been around for 100 years.

The Joe’s Special has all the makings of a good sandwich. The rye is pillowy soft with a crisp crust. The sausage is warm. The pickle spear is tart and crunchy. There’s enough mustard to slap you into a state resembling sobriety. The slice of cheese doesn’t quite melt but molds into the bread. You can grip the entire thing with one hand. You can put your drink down and use two.

If you were to offer me this combination of ingredients in any other setting, I might refuse. But with alternating bites of sandwich, pretzel and egg and sips of ice-cold root beer while the sounds of the bar lull me into a pleasant afternoon haze, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. And nothing else I’d rather be eating. Rapture exists in a Joe Jost’s Special at 2 p.m. on a Monday.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.