This Hole-in-the-Wall Life: Eatin' to the Oldies at Lil' Pickle

Man, how have I reviewed restaurants for so long and never recommended LIL' PICKLE? I've eaten at this Costa Mesa institution for years, since I attended Orange Coast College just down Fairview Road, poring over term papers while fueled by sandwiches and chips. Although my life and Costa Mesa's character have both changed in the decade since, the dive remains unchanged: K-Earth spinning the same five songs over the PA, photos of high school teams on the walls, young cooks goofing around when they're not slapping out sandwiches at the rate of one per minute. The 45-year-old dive calls itself “Orange County's Oldest and Most Popular Sandwich Shop,” but both statements are a bit off: There's a sub shop in Anaheim that has been around since the Eisenhower administration, and Lil' Pickle is never a madhouse à la Lee's Sandwiches. But disregard my nitpicking—I do when I have a Lil' Pickle mammoth before me.

A Lil' Pickle sub is history, gluttony and jes' good eating concentrated in a 12-inch sandwich. There are only 22 choices available, and all are probably unchanged since the day this restaurant opened in 1962 (indeed, the signature Lil' Pickle sub—ham, salami, capicolla, cheese, oil and dressing—is hawked as “The Original 1962”). Only the classics here—egg salad, roast beef and any number of Italian-style meats on a French or wheat roll. They garnish the BLT just with mayo; the cotta salami, solely with oil. Mustard goes on pastrami, tomato sauce on meatballs. Each sandwich also contains mozzarella cubes, freshly cut lettuce and a kosher pickle. About the fanciest thing here is an honest-to-goodness grinder: cotta, salami, mortadella, onions, peppers and Italian dressing, an oozing monument to the Italo-American experience. For crying out loud, one sandwich is simply named “Lotsa beef or turkey.” On the house are Italian peppers, onions and chile peppers-and they'll cook your sub with Tapatí­o or habanero slices upon request.

Whatever you get, the experience is the same. The loaf is soft, steaming, with only the outer skin slightly crispy. Though Lil' Pickle has no stand-alone deli, the meats are fresh and come in portions big enough to affect beef futures. No other meals distract you from the subs-no pastas, soups, or any other snacks save for chips. House salads are also available, but ordering salad at a sandwich shop is like ordering fries at a Mexican restaurant. The all-beef hot dog is also good, but it seems out of character—skip it. But don't ignore the Orange Bang! on tap. Restaurants: The best way to for me to notice your restaurant is if you stock this elixir—Scout's honor.

Lil' Pickle,  2985 Fairview Rd., Costa Mesa, (714) 979-5522.

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