April 2, 2017

The French Dip

One of the things I love to do when I take Wizards road trips is check out the in arena food offerings in the town I'm visiting. I'm forever curious about food and I'm really seeing if the locals can get some regionally inspired dishes while they are sitting in their seats watching live hoops. If you're a frequent reader of this blog you'll know I've first complained about what you couldn't get in terms of local chef-driven fare at Verizon Center and then praised the opening of a José Andrés owned stand earlier this year.

Last week I happened to be in Los Angeles to see the Wizards play not one but two road games. Before the first of these two games vs. the Lakers, I entered Staples Center about as early as I could to check out the food scene there thinking if there was something really good, I'd order it the very next night when the Wizards played the Clippers on the roadie back to back in the exact same building. A quick trip around the lower level and the Premier level concourses yielded some pretty promising local-type fare: a variety of tacos, some churros, a series of California inspired and themed hamburgers and a French dip sandwich.

I'm sure you may be thinking hold up on that last one: a French dip sandwich? The roast beef sandwich on a roll which typically comes with a side of au jus (or drippings from the roasting plan) to dip your sandwich in as you eat? How is that (a) arena friendly and (b) local to Los Angeles? Well, I can't speak to the arena friendly question because honestly it seems like it would be a little difficult to eat a sandwich while balancing a bowl of beef broth on your lap, tray or no tray. But the local thing? Well, that's easy. The French dip sandwich was invented in Los Angeles.

Philippe's The Original at 1001 North Alameda Street.
I don't know what it is about basketball road trips and beef sandwiches but here we are again. Three years ago I visited Philadelphia to see the Wizards play the 76ers and the next morning walked over to the corner of Passyunk and 9th to get myself a Philly cheesesteak at Pat's King of Steaks. Pat's is the place founded by the inventor of the sandwich, although there's a spot across the street, Geno's Steaks, that claims the same thing. Since I knew I'd only have one chance for a sandwich in Philly, I did some research and pretty much convinced myself that Pat's was the inventor and then picked that as my cheesesteak spot.

Funnily enough, there are two spots in Los Angeles that claim they invented the French dip sandwich. The first of these two places is Cole's French Dip, a restaurant on 6th Street in downtown L.A. According to their website, their chef, Jack Garlinghouse, invented the sandwich as it is today when he dipped a sandwich in au jus to soften it up a little for a customer with sore gums. According to Cole's, that happened in 1908, the same year the restaurant opened. They are silent on where the French came from but one could reasonably infer it's from the French roll the sandwich comes on.

The second contender for inventor of the French dip is Philippe's The Original, a spot north of the 101 on the east edge of Chinatown. Like Cole's, Philippe's has also been open since 1908. Their invention story on their website happens in 1918, which I find interesting and bold, considering most food invention rivalries usually claim a fairly similar timeline for who came first. According to Philippe's, their invention was an accident. Their chef accidentally dropped a French roll in some au jus when preparing a sandwich for a policeman customer, who said he'd take it as is anyway. Apparently he liked it so much that the next day he came back for another along with several friends. Philippe's has three stories to back up the French name on the dish: either it was the French roll or the fact that Philippe Mathieu who owned the place was French or the customer's name was French. We should pick I guess.

If you ask me, both stories are fishy. And since I was going to be in downtown Los Angeles for work for a whole week, I thought rather than researching which place is telling the truth, I just figured I'd go to each spot and find out which one I liked more. So I did.

The interior of Philippe's.
I arrived in Los Angeles Sunday afternoon, checked in to my hotel and hailed a cab to take me to Philippe's. I picked this place first for one simple reason: they are open on Sunday and Cole's ain't. After a quick ride, I arrived at 1001 North Alameda Street on the edge of Chinatown. What I found inside was a deli-like counter with six or seven servers furiously taking orders and a series of three to seven deep lines with hungry customers. This was at 4:40 on a Sunday afternoon. Not exactly lunch or dinner time and the place was packed. And churning through customers as it turned out. I wasn't waiting in line more than about 10 minutes.

You can get an array of dipped sandwiches at Philippe's and you can get it with options. There are pork, ham, lamb, pastrami and turkey dip sandwiches as well as the traditional roast beef and their sandwiches come on white, wheat, sourdough, rye or a French roll and they can be ordered with a variety of cheese. I ordered mine as I would typically think of a French dip sandwich: a beef dip on French roll, no cheese. I also picked up some pickles and a side of potato salad. And a beer. An Indie Blond made by Indie Brewing located right in Los Angeles. A few minutes later, I had my Sunday dinner.

Apparently the thing at Philippe's is to eat your sandwich with some of their hot mustard ("It's hot, but good." according to their website). I'd never heard of eating a French dip with mustard but I've also never claimed to be a connoisseur of this particular sandwich. I applied a healthy squeeze from the bottle located on every communal table and hoped for the best.

Philippe's The Original Beef Dip, with side of potato salad and some pickles.
The meat at Philippe's was pretty much right on as what I think about when I order a French dip sandwich: fall apart tender roasted beef, although I could claim that I like my roast beef a little pinker. I also liked the roll which I found soft and not in need of the accidental or purposeful drenching in the au jus like in Philippe's origin story (you can get your rolls dipped a variety of ways at Philippe's; I opted for it undipped). I also appreciated the finely chopped potato and the slightly sweet mayonnaise mixture (from sweet pickle juice maybe?) in my side order. I'd go lighter or not at all with the mustard next time though.

It was only when I sat down that I realized one thing was missing: the au jus. Apparently, the sandwiches don't come with it at Philippe's; you have to order it separately. Now as a general rule here, I expect when I order a French dip sandwich, that it will come with some pan juice for me to dunk my sandwich in. This to me was a major faux pas. I did not go back and stand in line. I ate my sandwich and it was a good one. I'm just not sure I'm putting Philippe's on my top 10 sandwich list. I don't have one, for the record.

Cole's on Sixth Street in downtown Los Angeles.
Four days and two basketball games later, I made my way over to Cole's for my second French dip of the week. Yes, I passed on the French dip at Staples.

I liked the atmosphere at Philippe's. It seems informal, family oriented and almost college-like and the service was quick. It's high quality fast food, if you will. Cole's is a 180 from Philippe's in terms of the venue. And I was hooked immediately.

I love dark old bars. The older and darker without being dank, the better. And Cole's, at its very heart, is an ultimate dark old bar. What can I say about this place? First of all, it's partially underground, which in the qualities of bars I love adds value. Sixth Street slopes down from the west to east; Cole's, which is located mid-block, seems to have its floor at sidewalk level at the east side of the block. It's also, depending on your perspective, poorly lit or just above ambiently lit (I prefer the latter). Where clear glazing could admit light, there's stained glass. Where bare bulbs or white shades could be used on the artificial light, there are amber frosted globes.

The bar itself is fantastic. High, wooden and dark stained and well constructed to absorb the kind of use a bar over 100 years gets after that much time. And by the scratches and chips in the top rail of the bar, this place has seen some good times and some late nights. This is just the kind of bar I want to sit at and drink good beer and other spirits slowly for hours.

Cole's French dip sandwich with bacon potato salad.
One more thing before we get to the food. When I first sat down at the bar, the sound system was playing Jimmy Ruffn's "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?", which has to be one of my all-time favorite non-Temptations Motown songs. That started a torrent of great mid to late 1960's songs: the Who's "I Can't Explain", the Hollies' "Look Through Any Window", the Association's "Along Comes Mary" and The Animals' "It's My Life". If there was not enough reason to sit at Cole's all night, I found one in the music.

So let's get to the food. Cole's offers a similar range of dip sandwiches as Philippe's. To maintain an even playing field, I ordered the exact same thing I ordered over there the first night I was in town. Sort of. I didn't order pickles because the sandwich came with one spear and I got a cup of au jus, because French dip sandwiches are supposed to come with au jus and Cole's serves them that way. I also couldn't replicate the beer because they didn't have a blond on tap. I went with Lost Coast's Alley Cat Amber instead.

Cole's sandwich was better. It just was. Maybe it was because they claim to have invented it first. Maybe it was the au jus, which i finished all of one dip at a time by soaking it up in that soft almost cake-y French roll. Maybe it was the slightly thinner and slightly pinker roast beef which in my opinion had a little more juiciness to it.

I would not get the potato salad again at Cole's which I found too dry and maybe a little undercooked. They use bacon in their potato salad and I can't believe I'm writing I'd choose a dish without bacon over one with bacon but it is what it is. I would definitely get the pickles again, which are marinated in some kind of chile flake vinegar; in fact, I did. Cole's sandwiches come with a single spear; I ordered extra which turned out to be five more spears. The acid and the heat cut the richness of the sandwich well.

I still don't know which place invented the French dip sandwich, but I know where I'd rather go next time I'm in Los Angeles. Cole's has got to be one of the two best bars I've visited for the first time in the last year (along with Canton, Ohio's Conestoga Grill which was similarly dark as Cole's) in terms of what I love in a bar. I'd take a second shot at Cole's food, probably another French dip beef sandwich with some spicy tater tots. And I'd linger at the bar a lot longer than I did this time and listen to more of that great music they play over there. I don't care who came up with it first, Cole's would be my choice for the Los Angeles French dip.

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