For the last 50 years, Dru Alexander has served her hefty submarine sandwiches from a dainty Italian shack called DeFranko’s Submarines, tucked a block away from the Van Nuys Airport.
The front of this old shack sits just a bit wider than your average 10x10 pop-up tent, held up by large windows, wooden frames, and a doorway shaded by a petite red canopy. The shack is so tiny it has the optical effect of making the DeFranko's Submarines sign look like a billboard on top of its little roof.
Take more than one step inside and you’ll bump your knee against the counter, where five stools provide the only sitting area. During lunch hour, you might have to order over someone's shoulders.
"If you want to sound like a regular there, order a Large ‘Yes Yes,’" says loyal local submariner Nshan Kenjoia about the large, thinly-sliced, steamed pastrami sandwich.
That’s "yes" for mustard and "yes" for cheese. After so many years, it's become the quickest way to order, preemptively answering the question, "Would you like mustard and cheese on that?" It only applies to the pastrami sandwich and is a term only true DeFranko fans know.
Unlike the shack, there's nothing tiny about these submarine sandwiches served on cushiony sesame seed “DeFranko Bread” and topped with onions, ripe tomatoes, and deli pickles, everything chopped in equally cubed chunks.
There’s mustard and mayo, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, dash of olive oil, and dusting of dried herbs to give it a lively, aromatic, dopamine-inducing bite. It’s served with a spoon because topping spillage is inevitable.
As Kenjoian puts it, "There's just something about this place that just feels good."
The tiny shack, the chewy bread, the bright toppings, and perfect proteins. The little counter with five stools and rare, Pepsi-branded menus. The way Scotch tape is placed, pre-measured readily on the shelf above the cold cuts prep station, in wait of the lunch rush. Two men in the back kitchen and one woman behind the counter, taking orders and finishing sandwiches.
When Alexander comes in, she asks who needs help, answers a call, and starts taking orders.
Originally from Wyoming, she moved to the Van Nuys area with her three-year-old daughter, Raelyn, to attend airline school in hopes of becoming a stewardess. Her mom, Eva, decided to back her up and move out with her. They would help DeFrank out with the shack when it first opened during the busy lunch hours. Both families are friends of each other, so they helped out for free.
DeFrank's original Italian name was DeFranco, but thanks to the U.S.'s notorious history of hiring immigration clerks who couldn’t qualify for a first grade spelling bee at Ellis Island–resulting in generations of immigrant family names getting scrambled– DeFranco was registered as “DeFrank.” When the family opened the sandwich shack, they saw an opportunity to honor the Italian pronunciation while holding on to the “k,” resulting in the shack's unique name: DeFranko's.
Unfortunately, DeFranko had heart problems months after opening the sandwich counter. That’s when Alexander, having fallen in love with Los Angeles, purchased DeFranko's with her mom. They kept the name and menu, including DeFranko’s “Pepper Steak Sandwich,” and added the pastrami, corned beef, and other menu items. They also have cold cuts, in case you were wondering.
In February of 1974, Alexander was a bold 22 years old, a recently single mom, a new business owner, and still finding her way in this new city she had fallen in love with.
She ran the counter by herself after her mom moved back to Wyoming, cooking in the small kitchen in the back, and taking orders in front until February 1979, when she hurt her back and hired her daughter's boyfriend, Howard.
She’s still behind the counter–with extra help now–on the phone, staying busy, and taking orders.
As she’s sharing her life story, her mind briefly wanders into a memory. She had just confirmed that Howard went on to marry Raylen, Alexander’s daughter, when she smiles, staring outside the door, and says, “There’s so many cool stories, so many neat, cool things have happened here.”
Eventually, you can try all the sandwiches, including Alexander’s corned beef and the meatball sub. But for now, if you want to feel like you’re in the know, just walk in and confidently say those magical words, “One large yes yes, please.”
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