French Dip, Once Hip

The past and present of a legendary soggy sandwich

I wish that some smart chef would go back to the original sandwich and doll it up slightly with superior, caramelized-on-the-edges roast beef or an unctuous brisket, either baked or boiled. Actually, since 1938, we've had a reliable facsimile of the French dip in Brooklyn. The venue is Brennan and Carr (3432 Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-769-1254), a landmark at the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Gravesend Neck Road, which was built when this part of the borough was mainly farmland and country lanes. The building looks like a Tudor cottage, with a rustic wooden sign that beckons "Hot Beef." The place makes its sandwiches ($5.50) on Kaiser rolls pre-dipped to sogginess in consommé and loads them up with tender, long-steamed roast beef.

The sandwich set me thinking: Given the place's name and the way the meat is cooked into oblivion, the assemblage at Brennan and Carr certainly seems Irish, rather than French. (My Irish grandmother cooked her beef that way when I was a kid.) Yet it was probably partly inspired by the faddish L.A. French dip, being identical in every respect save for the bread choice, leading me to believe that the first story of the French dip's origin is true: The sandwich is so named not because anyone Gallic created it, but simply because it was made with a baguette.

The inevitable conclusion: L.A.'s celebrated French dip is, at heart, an Irish sandwich.

Walter Foods tries it with skirt steak and sourdough.
Liz Barclay
Walter Foods tries it with skirt steak and sourdough.

Addendum: I'd finished this piece and turned it in when a close friend called to tell me that she'd just eaten a spectacular French dip at Minetta Tavern (113 MacDougal Street, 212-475-3850). "But it's $24 and only at lunch," she'd warned, "I hope that's not out of your price range." Oh, what the hell, I thought as I jumped on my bike and pedaled over there. The restaurant's vibe at midday is way more laid-back than the scrum of supplicants one finds in the evening, and I was given my own comfortable table with a view of the kitchen.

I immediately ordered the sandwich, styled Minetta French dip, and was pleased to see the price also included fries. When it came, I couldn't help but let out an admiring sigh. The thing was ensconced in a baguette-size bun, and I could see a wealth of pink roast beef sticking out the sides. The halves had been brushed with meat juices, with an extra teacup of lubricant provided. When I bit in, my mouth was suffused with rich, beefy flavor and a stealthy taste of garlic butter. I also noted that fresh horseradish had been grated on top of the meat.

Altogether, it was the best French dip I'd eaten either here or in L.A. and well within the canon as so defined (except for the doneness of the beef). Well, I thought as I wiped the lovely gravy from my lips, if Irish cooking keeps evolving in this manner, maybe someplace will soon be offering Irish haute cuisine.

rsietsema@villagevoice.com

For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.

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7 comments
Nell Casey
Nell Casey

I had never had a French Dip until my boyfriend and I wandered into Rathbones on the UES to get a quick, low-key bite. On the bartender's recommendation, I got a French Dip with mozzarella cheese and WOW that is the greatest sandwich ever. It's served on crusty garlic bread with tender meat and a side of luscious au jus and comes with a HEAPING side of well-salted fries. On Fridays they have it on special for $6.95. Go! Go!

StantheAmerican
StantheAmerican

When you can't find a good one, you can hit an Arby's!

Save
Save

Though not referred to as a 'French Dip' sandwich one can find in the Crescent City at Mother's on Poydras or even Dom Melises's a Roast Beef Po Boy that does indeed fit within the parameters of the authors requisite comestible. French bread sliced in half, check, filled with any combination of cooked roast beef, dressed w/ lettuce & tomato and mayo check, slathered in a brown gravy that would make your old converse edible-check!

RobertA
RobertA

Phillipe's -The Original. YUM!

Kinda4
Kinda4

Walker's in Tribeca has a formidable french dip. Good fries too.

Kent R. Atkinson
Kent R. Atkinson

Until hitting page 2 of the post, I was concerned that you, of the peripatetic foodie meanderings had missed old B&C.But fear not, dear reader, our man Sietsema ,ever intrepid ,comes up with the goods for proper comparison.A reputation for thoroughness is safe for another week!

Guy Misterioso
Guy Misterioso

The French dip at Phillipe's in Los Angeles is a decent sandwich but the real star there is the Lamb sandwich served with bread dipped in the beef broth. Augmented by Phillipe's seriously spicy hot mustard (a J. Gold fave) and you have one of the best sandwiches I have ever had. You know it's good when you see the serving ladies actually slicing the lamb off the shank when you order it.

 
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